The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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December 25, 2011

Future uncertain for Lake Crystal man who lost home in fire

LAKE CRYSTAL — After a long gaze into the charred remains of William Doty’s Lake Crystal home and property, you’d be hard-pressed to see how it could ever recover.

The same could be said for his life. And certainly his Christmas.

Doty’s home, a few miles outside town, is about as done as done can be. After his dog tipped over a space heater in what can only be imagined as a moment of canine curiosity, Doty’s life, meager as it was, has been tipped upside down.

That happened on Tuesday. The days that followed were a blur of trying to salvage what he could from the house, which turned out to be next to nothing, and trying to figure out where to live, where to keep his pets, how to pay his bills, when he’d be able to work, etc.

“There ain’t much you can do,” Doty said, “but try and survive.”

Doty is 68 years old and still works as a truck driver. He has lived alone, though, for much of his life. He has no children. No immediate family in his life. Luckily, he’s got a few extended family members in the area, such as the Vernon Center cousin who is letting him stay there for a while.

He calls himself a self-employed trucker, and earns most of his income hauling soybean meal, beans and corn around Minnesota and Iowa.

Christmas, for him, usually doesn’t involve a lot of fanfare.

“Not much celebrating to do there by myself,” he said.

Doty has lived there for several decades. The backyard is full of vehicles, including a handful of semi tractors, and a motley collection of grills, doghouses, hubcaps, decrepit outbuildings and other items strewn about his farm site. Most of that remains as it did before the fire, although some got doused with fire hose water.

But inside the house is where the true devastation is visible. A window that faces the driveway offers a glimpse of the kind of fury a house fire brings. Doty said his home contained heirloom furniture that belonged to his mother and grandmother. All that remains of it now are the metal-wire skeleton that hid beneath the cushions and upholstery.

On the ceiling, smoke-stained icicles cling to blackened joists. On the floor, a foot of black debris, stiff from fire hose water that froze when the fire was out. It seems remarkable, surveying the damage, that any of the structure is still standing.

Doty says he had just come home from work on the night of the fire when he realized something was wrong. From the kitchen he walked into the living room where he saw that his dog, Oscar, had apparently tipped over a space heater.

He quickly grabbed some blankets and tried to smother the flames, but within minutes the fire grew fierce, and brought hellish degrees of smoke and heat. Doty ran out of the house, pulled out his cellphone and called 911.

“My house is on fire!” he recalls telling a dispatcher.

After that, he walked across the road to a neighbor’s house, where he stood and watched his home burn.

All that furniture, gone.

All the paperwork for his business, gone.

Family photos from years ago, gone.

Television, stereo, gone.

He’s also still looking for some of the handful of cats he kept in the house.

Doty says he doesn’t know what he’ll do next. Unlike most homeowners, his home was not insured. It’s not that he didn’t want insurance, he says, but that his insurance company refused to insure it because of the poor condition of the roof.

So while most of us are reveling in the holiday season, Doty is wondering where he’ll be living in a few weeks. He figures he and his two dogs can sleep in the truck he uses to haul beans and corn, at least for a while. He knows that isn’t a realistic long-term solution.

He needs help. Both the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross have reached out to Doty. But he’s wondering what he’ll do in a few weeks when the emergency donations run out, and he’s still homeless in the middle of a Minnesota winter.

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