Herald JournalHerald Journal, Sept. 5, 2005

Recalling the Howard Lake school fire of 1975

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

It’s the time of the year students are heading back to class, but 30 years ago, at Howard Lake-Waverly Public School in Howard Lake, the school year got off to a bit later start than usual.

One month before the start of the school year, an explosion and fire ravaged through the school, starting in the gymnasium, and making its way through other parts of the building.

Two men were recoating wrestling mats in the gym at about 6 p.m. Aug. 1, 1975, when it is believed a spark from a fan ignited flammable materials and caused an explosion.

“They had to run like hell to get out of there,” commented former firefighter Wayne Diers, who served on the department for 25 years, retiring in 1989. “There was a big fire ball behind them . . . they were damn lucky to get out alive.”

“It’s hard to believe those guys got out of there,” agreed fellow 25-year firefighter Shelly Reddemann. “Those guys were being watched over.”

In addition to the Howard Lake Fire Department, five other Wright County departments were called in to assist Howard Lake by Fire Chief Joe Ostgulen, according to Howard Lake Herald archives.

“We were called up to that,” recalled Val LePage, who was the fire chief in Waverly from 1970 to 1978. “We were there to assist them. It was a pretty tough fire to fight.”

“It was during the (Wright County) fair time,” Diers recalled. “I was down at the fair when the siren went off.”

Diers said it was one of the hardest fires he ever fought in his years of being on the department, due to its location.

“It started in the gym – which was in the middle of the school, and where there were no windows,” he said. “We couldn’t get to the fire because of the dense smoke.”

Diers recalled being on one of the first teams of three firefighters to enter the burning gym, and said the lead man kept asking for more light because it was impossible to see two feet in front of you.

“It was unbelievable,” Diers said. Outside the scene, Reddemann served as a “runner” between the pumpers set up on 8th Avenue, and the other side of the building, he said.

“I never got inside,” Reddemann said, noting he realized it was going to be a difficult fire to fight when he got to the fire hall and saw smoke coming out of the gym roof.

Former firefighter Ed Reinmuth, who retired two years after the school fire, also recalled attacking the fire from two different sides – the east and the west.

“I was on the west crew . . . we would go through a door in the hallway, squirt water around as much as we could, than shut the door and get the heck out of there,” Reinmuth said. “It was a real mess.”

School superintendent at the time, Fred Nus, had just returned home from vacation when he received word about the fire.

“I came back into town from a vacation, and a friend of mine called and told me the school was on fire,” Nus said.

Former Howard Lake firefighter Bernie Zander said he does not recall the fire, but said he may have been hauling milk at the time.

For firefighter Rod Werner, the fire will be one he will never forget. His wife, Wanda, believes it is the first fire he ever responded to as a member of the fire department, plus he had a wedding that same weekend.

Finding a way to turn a negative thing into a positive, the Howard Lake-Waverly School Board called for a building bond, which received the approval of the voters just two months after the fire.

“It really worked out quite well,” Nus said. The approved bond was used to create a new gymnasium, as well as more classroom space.

“We dedicated the gym to Hubert H. Humphrey (former vice president of the United States and Minnesota senator, who lived in Waverly), who died about that time,” Nus said.

From that point until today, home basketball games, practices, and countless other activities for the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School District take place in the appropriately named Humphrey Hall.

From the Aug. 7, 1975 Howard Lake Herald

An explosion ripped through the gymnasium of the Howard Lake Public School shortly after 6 p.m. last Friday, Aug. 1. The ensuing fire produced a dense, black smoke making it difficult for firefighters to get at the source of the blaze.

The force of the explosion blew out windows on the opposite side of the school from the gym, and also lifted a part of the roof off the gym. Two workmen Greg Wilson, 25, and Terry Wilson, 20, from Resilite Reconditioning, Wayzata, who were recovering wrestling mats with Poly Vinyl, escaped with minor cuts and one of the local firefighters, Rod Werner, also received minor cuts on his hand. No other injuries were reported.

The smoke and heat were so intense firefighters could remain inside the building for only very short periods of time before being relieved by other firefighters. Approximately 40 to 50 tanks of air were used by the firefighters.

The explosion and fire was believed caused by a spark from a fan where the workmen were recovering the mats. Damage to the school has been conservatively estimated in excess of $250,000 to $300,000.

The Wright County Emergency Truck, with its extra supply of air tanks and portable lighting system, and the Cokato Fire Department were called immediately to assist the local department. Shortly after, departments from Maple Lake, Buffalo, Montrose, and Waverly were also called to assist. Equipment at the fire scene included six pumpers, four rescue trucks, two tankers, and one ambulance, manned by about 60 firefighters.

All six departments remained at the scene until about 10 p.m. when the fire was declared under control. Some members of the local department were on duty until 2 a.m. After the firefighters left the scene, local Civil Defense were on duty to watch for a possible outbreak of the fire and also to guard against vandalism until windows and doors could be secured.

The gymnasium suffered the most extensive fire damage with part of the bleachers burned, the gym floor charred in places, and other equipment destroyed. Firefighters had to cut four holes in the gym roof to get at the fire. The extent of structural damage to the walls and roof of the gym were not known at this writing, which could raise the damage estimate considerably.

The dense, black smoke left a film of soot throughout the school. Authorities hope to have the classrooms cleaned and ready for the opening of the school year. Additional information will be published as progress on the massive cleaning job is made on the school.

The fire was investigated by local authorities and the state fire marshal’s office. The assistant state fire marshal was at the scene by 11 p.m. Friday and completed his investigation Monday.

In the Aug. 21, Howard Lake Herald, an article appeared stating the opening of school would be delayed until Sept. 8.

Work is progressing at a rapid pace, but because several rooms will require replacement of ceilings, lights, and floors, it is not possible to open Sept. 2 as originally planned.

From the Aug. 28, 1975 Howard Lake Herald

The Howard Lake-Waverly Public Schools will be able to open Sept. 8 as planned since clean up following the Aug. 1 fire is moving along at a rapid pace. The entire building has been cleaned and all rooms but the gym will be ready for use.

Last week the entire gym was sandblasted to remove all traces of smoke and loose plaster. This week the walls will be replastered and then the floor will be torn out. Before the gym is restored the school board has decided to sit down with the district’s architect to discuss the possibility of remodeling the gym area into classroom space. The school board will discuss this topic at the regular meeting Thursday at 8 p.m.


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