Dec. 25 , 2006

Operation Christmas Rescue

By Lynda Jensen

It wasn’t a burning house or a car accident that made the Winsted Fire Department respond Tuesday night to the Tim and Colleen Flaig family, again.

This time, instead of trying to save the Flaigs’ lives, house, barn and horses, the fire department tried to save Christmas itself, bringing presents and cheer to the Flaigs, where they are temporarily staying, at the Steve and Sue Goebel home southwest of Winsted.

To the surprise of the Flaigs, and especially the Flaig children, Taylor Flaig, 4, and TJ, 2, a fire truck arrived Tuesday evening, exactly one week after their house was burned out, along with everything in it.

The pumper fire truck was decked out with holiday lights that would be familiar to those who have seen the fire department’s best at the Winsted Winter Festival parade.

Along with the truck came about four boxes of Christmas presents, and the jolly old elf himself, along with a small army of firefighters in snappy uniforms, who brought presents into the house and watched the children unwrap them.

TJ cautiously accepted the gifts from Santa, but declined at first to sit on Santa’s lap or give him a hug. However, he gave high fives to nearly every fire fighter later on – and once given a tour of the fire truck, refused to come out of it; making some think it was a sure sign he’d be a future member someday.

Taylor Flaig expressed excitement as she opened each gift. “Bratz dolls!” she shouted at one point.

Games, dolls, clothes and other items piled up under the tree, with the small Flaig children being heard several times saying “thank you,” – even TJ at 2 years old.

The Goebel children – Katie, 9, John, 7, Matt, 5, and little Margaret, 3, watched quietly as the Flaigs opened their presents.

“They were good,” Sue Goebel said, saying she was relieved that her children behaved so well because she half expected some tears when it came to watching other children open so many presents.

“They saw the house burning,” Sue said of her children, since the Goebels live about five miles away. The Flaigs had spent a week already with the Goebels, making it painfully clear that the Flaigs had nothing. “I think it sunk in.”

Just before the surprise visit, Sue whispered in her children’s ears that Santa was planning a special visit for the Flaig children because they lost all their Christmas presents.

A funny moment took place when, once Santa arrived, nearly all the children except TJ ran upstairs because they thought they were supposed to be sleeping in bed when Santa came, Sue said. They had to be sweet-talked into coming down by their parents.

Margaret Goebel stayed hidden on the stairs with her dad, while the hubbub was going on.

“We haven’t thought about presents at all,” Tim Flaig said, saying that they have been preoccupied with trying to piece their lives back together since the fire.

Colleen Flaig confessed that the thoughtfulness of the department made her cry, but she was also seen crying the day after their home burned down. She said it was good to have a “happy cry” this time.

Both Tim and Colleen expressed deep gratefulness toward the Goebel family for opening their home to them through this hard time.

“Steve and Sue have been completely amazing,” Tim said.

Losing what they didn’t know they had

Reflecting on the house fire Dec. 12, Paul Herbolsheimer of the fire department commented, “We did everything we could that night, but it just didn’t seem to be enough.”

The impact didn’t really hit most department members until the salvage and overhaul stage of the fire, when firefighters help to clean up the aftermath, he said.

A large portion of the main level floor was missing due to the fire’s origin in the basement, he said.

“I entered the living room through a window to extinguish a couple hot spots, and salvage any belongings we could,” Herbolsheimer said.

He handed a few things out to members of the Lester Prairie Fire Department, who were assisting at the scene.

“The Christmas tree was first, blackened by the intense heat of the fire – not a needle in place – a couple of gifts, black with soot and soaking wet, and last the sofa, with a couple of blankets,” he said.

“It was then that we realized that not only did the family lose everything they had, but they lost a few things before they even knew they had them,” Herbolsheimer said.

Back at the station, a couple of hours later, the department finished washing trucks and packing hose.

“But we knew our job wasn’t done, we needed to ‘rescue Christmas,’” Herbolsheimer said.

That very night, the wheels started turning to make a difference. Phone calls were made the next morning, along with a quick call to Santa Claus. The department was sure the lack of snow would cause problems for Santa’s sleigh, Herbolsheimer said, so a fire truck seemed the logical solution.

Indeed, Christmas presents were the last thing on the Flaigs’ minds, Tim Flaig said.

Perhaps TJ may be too small to remember the house fire, Tim Flaig said – but Taylor certainly will remember.

“It’ll take a back seat to this,” Tim Flaig added, saying that Santa visiting, with the fire department, will certainly dim the memory of the house fire for his 4-year-old daughter.

“We hope that Taylor and TJ never forget the night Santa and the firemen came to visit,” Herbolsheimer said.


Meanwhile, the community – galvanized into action – continues to pour in support for the Flaig family. Clothes and other items continue to fill the Goebel porch.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” Colleen said. “We’re so grateful.”

Their need for furniture was filled in one 24-hour period last week, Sue reported.

Both Tim and Colleen are from small towns, Tim from Tripoli, Iowa, and Colleen from a town near Rochester, and so neither are completely surprised at the response.

They expect to move into a trailer home this week, and construction of their new home will begin soon.

Tim is hopeful that the new house will be done by February or mid-March, he said.

Neighbors volunteered to take down the old house, to enable construction to commence.

The insurance company will cover the loss.

“They fought tooth and nail over a leaky roof in the barn,” Tim said. “But they had no problem with covering the house.”

Donations are still welcome

Donations of such items as everyday household goods would be useful now, especially since the Flaigs had a trailer home set up Thursday, Dec. 21 at the location of the previous home along Cable Ave. (just off Grass Lake Road). Since the Flaig family lost everything, there is a long list of possible items that could be donated for those who are interested, commented friend Sue Goebel.

This includes the following: clear 20-gallon plastic storage containers, cleaning supplies, socks and under garments, laundry detergent, paper and envelopes, other everyday items, men’s work clothes (large or size 32x34), dishes, silverware, a coffee maker, toaster, and other items needed to fill a house.

There is an account set up at Flagship Bank of Winsted, PO Box 130, Winsted MN 55395.

For the time being, the family is set with furniture, blankets, bedding and children’s clothes, Goebel said.

Those interested in helping may drop off any items directly at the Flaig trailer home starting Thursday, or drop off items at the Herald Journal office in Winsted. To make arrangements, call Colleen Flaig at (320) 485-4669.

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