The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 5, 2011

New Ulm fire: relatives mourn

By Brian Ojanpa
The Free Press

NEW ULM — Two firefighters and a police officer were staffing a  post Tuesday at the site of a New Ulm house fire that claimed six lives Saturday.

Authorities were keeping the site secure for fire investigators and insurance representatives as a steady stream of people passed by and snapped photos in the aftermath of what is thought to be the city’s worst loss-of-life blaze.

“Without a doubt it’s the most tragic house fire in recent memory in New Ulm,” Police Chief Myron Wieland said of the 2 a.m. incident that turned the Bohemian Bed & Breakfast into a fireball.

Names of the deceased have yet to be officially released, though family members have confirmed that home owner Bobbi McCrea, 48, and daughters Abby, 15, and Savannah, 3, died in the fire that appeared to have started in the front porch area and swiftly enveloped the exterior of the home at 304 S. German St.  (Map)

The case is being investigated by the state fire marshal’s office and identities will be released following autopsies by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner.

On Tuesday Jerry and Maggie Ubl were among those stopping to gaze upon the ruins of the 1899 structure.

Jerry Ubl is McCrea’s uncle. He and his wife, both New Ulm natives, had just driven nine hours straight from their home in Columbia, Mo.

“We were informed on Saturday of the tragedy, so we threw some clothes in the car and came up,” he said as he took in the sight and shook his head. “Unbelievable.”

Firefighters on Saturday tried to enter the rear of the house but were thwarted by intense heat.

New Ulm Police Cmdr. Dave Borchert said arson doesn’t appear likely, though investigators have yet to make that determination.

According to various media reports, McCrea’s husband Charlie Zangl escaped from the burning house and was imploring McCrea to drop the children from a third-story window.

Zach Kuck, 17, said he arrived at the scene early on and heard a woman in the house screaming for help moments before the roof collapsed.

Four people received varying injuries as they escaped the fire, while another five staying in the Bohemian’s nearby carriage house were unharmed.

New Ulm native McCrea had returned to her hometown in 2002 to transform the house into a bed and breakfast.

Friends described her as a stylish and gregarious lover of the arts and theater who was known for her living history portrayals of New Ulm author Wanda Gag.

“She was the most gracious hostess you would ever want to meet,” Judy Sellner told the New Ulm Journal.

She said McCrea wrote brilliantly and beautifully and she never heard her say a bad word about anyone. 

The six deaths ranks among the Mankato area’s worst residential fires.

A 1965 fire at a Kasota farm house killed 4-6 children (the precise number couldn’t be obtained), and a 1993 apartment fire in St. James killed a mother and her five children.

According to National Fire Protection Association statistics, the most devastating single-family house fire in state history occurred Jan. 1, 1989, when 10 people perished in the northern Minnesota town of Remer.