The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 8, 2012

Update: Fatal fire discovered after electricity went out

By Dan Nienaber
The Free Press

NEW ULM — A 79-year-old woman is dead and her nephew is homeless after an early morning fire Saturday destroyed the woman's home south of New Ulm.

Mike Nichols said he woke up at about 5 a.m. and realized his electricity was out. Then he looked outside and saw his neighbors still had electricity.

"I went outside to find out why and that's when I discovered the fire," he said. "You couldn't see flames or anything, but you couldn't seen inside her house because of the smoke. It was hot enough in there that the glass was disforming, so I didn't even try to go inside."

Nichols' aunt, Dorothy Lee Nichols, was found dead inside her house at 11050 Shag Road by firefighters who responded to Mike Nichols' 911 call. She was living in a garage that had been converted into a one-room house. There was a bedroom on the second floor of the garage that she didn't use anymore, Mike Nichols said.

He was living in a mobile home next door. Nichols and his aunt shared water and electricity. The electricity is out and the water pump that was on the back of Dorothy Nichols' house was damaged, so even though firefighters kept his home from burning, he won't be able to move back in any time soon.

"To tell you the truth, I don't think I will be moving back," he said.

All that was left of Dorthy Nichols' house after the firefighters left Saturday morning was a charred pile of her belongings. Firefighters had to use a bucket loader to pull the garage apart so the fire could be completely extinguished, said Nichols neighbor Ron Janni. He said firefighters would put the fire down, but flames would come back through the roof again.

Dorothy Nichols had moved to the mobile home after she was married. After the marriage ended, she started an upholstry business in the garage. She remodeled the garage, moved into it and allowed Mike Nichols to rent the mobile home after he got out of the military in the 1980s, he said.

She had decided to go to a nursing home about two months ago, but that arrangement lasted fewer than two weeks. Dorothy Nichols didn't like it much and decided to move back, Mike Nichols said.

"She was a pack rat and I think that probably contributed to the fire," he said. "I'm not sure how the fire started. She smoked. There were extension cords. Something could have fell against her stove. I don't know and I don't know if they will ever figure it out with all the stuff that was in there."

Neither residence was insured, so Mike Nichols, whose wife, Donna, died in July, said he didn't know what he was going to do next for housing. The Red Cross has supplied him with a hotel for a few days, but he needs to find a place for his cats. He had a call into the Brown County Humane Society Saturday morning.

He does know he will be going back to work doing building maintenance for New Ulm Telecom Monday morning.

"I'm doing all right," Nichols said. "I'm just taking it as it comes, I guess."

An autopsy is pending to determine the cause of Dorothy Nichols' death, a Brown County Sheriff's Department news release said. The official cause of the fire had not yet been determined.