NEW ULM - New Ulm was in a somber mood Tuesday as residents and survivors reflected on the anniversary of the tragic Bohemian Bed and Breakfast fire, which killed six people last July 2. Those lost included Bohemian owner Bobbi McCrea, her 15-year-old daughter Abby, her 3-year-old daughter Savannah and three guests.
New Ulm Fire Chief Paul Macho described the fire as one of the worst disasters in the city's history. The incident generated statewide attention and a renewed look at how the state regulates bed and breakfasts. It has also spawned litigation filings against McCrea's estate.
Legal entanglements remain
Litigation over the deaths and injuries caused by the fire remain unresolved. Currently, the parties involved are seeking to resolve the situation through private arbitration.
In addition to McCrea and her daughters, the Bohemian fire claimed the lives of Joseph and Dian Bergman, of Centuria, Wis., and Andy Uhing, of Hartington, Neb. Sandy Uhin, his wife, escaped by jumping from the building.
Charles and Diane Frye, of Plymouth, were injured while escaping the fire.
Four wrongful death claims and one injury claim were filed against McCrea's estate. Charlie Zangl, finance of McCrea, filed on behalf of his daughter Savannah. Mark Wood, ex-husband of McCrea, filed on behalf of his daughter Abby. Relatives of the Bergmans and Uhing also filed. Minneapolis attorney James Schwebel filed the injury complaint for the Fryes.
McCrea's mother Ruth Ann McCrea Simpson and sister Jyneal McCrea were put in charge of her estate. Records show the estate consists of over $990,700 in real estate, insurance money and property, along with over $322,000 in mortgage debt.
Initial claims against the estate through Brown County, which included an over $1 million claim on behalf of the Bergman interests, were declined. As a result, the claims will be handled privately. All the parties involved have agreed to appoint Twin Cities mediator Steve Kirsch to lead the arbitration process. Kirsch, well known in field, oversaw mediation for the I-35W bridge collapse litigation.
A reviewed process,
a renewed safety
The Bohemian fire also caused a re-examination of the state's regulation of bed-and-breakfast businesses.
The Minnesota Bed and Breakfast Association lists 114 members. State regulations dictate that a bed and breakfast with six or more rooms must be inspected by state officials annually, similar to hotels. Establishments with fewer rooms are deemed residential facilities and left to how the individual city regulates fire inspections. A Minnesota Public Radio investigation after the fire showed that only 11 of those 114 bed and breakfasts are inspected by the state.
New Ulm boasts one of the stricter regulations in the state, with annual inspections by the city fire marshal. Comparatively, Minnesota's bed and breakfast capital of Lanesboro hosts 13 bed and breakfasts while having no local fire inspections. The city relies on annual health inspections, which include the most basic fire inspections.
The Bohemian was not state inspected, despite hosting over six rooms, because there were only four guest rooms in the main house. A carriage house had additional guest rooms. The main house was not inspected by the City at the time of the fire because the owner stated guests wouldn't be staying there. Guests were in that building during the fire. The state fire marshal concluded that an unattended candle caused the fire and the building was still up to code.
The New Ulm fire created a major safety shift in Lanesboro. The 13 bed and breakfasts worked together to implement their own additional safety measures for fires and weather-related emergencies.
Dave Huisenga, a former St. Paul division fire chief and owner of the Habberstad House in Lanesboro, said nearly all Lanesboro bed and breakfasts have had the local fire department tour their layout. He personally installed emergency lights and advised guests of fire evacuation plans. He said the others have initiated similar measures.
"It's nothing official. We just wanted to make sure something like [the Bohemian] didn't happen here," said Huisenga.
Huisenga encourages other communities to require additional safety measures.
Long road to healing
Zangl, who escaped the fire that claimed his daughter and his fiance McCrea, said the process of healing from his loss has been very slow. He said he struggles day-to-day to deal with his grief.
"It feels like a day, not a year. They were my everything," said Zangl.
There are currently no plans for the Bohemian site. Legal wrangling must be resolved first, he said.
For Zangl, the most important thing that occurred in the fire's aftermath has been the overwhelming support from the community. He said he has never imagined the sheer number of people, including complete strangers, would step forward to help.
"We even had people that stayed with us just one time calling. They wanted to know if they could do anything to help," said Zangl. "There's no way I can thank these people enough. It's incredible."
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)