UPDATE: Northern Minn. fire claims three lives, two others injured
HIBBING — Hibbing Fire Chief Erik Jankila was reading from a news release, but he visibly choked up when he reached a summary paragraph.
"This is a heavy day for the Fire Department, and we do want to make sure that we send our most sincere condolences to the family," Jankila said, containing his emotions with an effort.
"It is always difficult for emergency services when we have to deal with loss of life no matter who or what it is," he added later in response to a question.
During a midafternoon news conference at the Hibbing Fire Station, Jankila steadfastly declined to release the identities of the two adults who died early Tuesday morning in a house fire in Hibbing, nor of the three children who were with them — one of whom died from their injuries.
However, friends confirmed a report that the adult victims were Steven Gillitzer, 67, and Patricia Gillitzer, 63. Obituaries for the Gillitzers were listed on a Hibbing funeral home website on Tuesday night.
Steven Gillitzer was a retired Hibbing firefighter. A photo of the Hibbing Fire Department from 1999 hanging on the wall inside the station shows a young Jankila at the bottom, and Gillitzer near the top, identified as a captain.
The fire at 212 42nd St. E. was reported by a passerby who called 911 at 1:37 a.m., Jankila said. Smoke detectors were sounding inside the house when the first firefighters arrived, he said.
Within eight minutes, Jankila said, firefighters had arrived and rescued the two adults and two children from the house. The third child was already outside the house, he said.
Hibbing police and neighbors took responsibility for transporting that child to Fairview Range Medical Center in Hibbing, Jankila said. That child was listed in stable condition Tuesday.
The other two children and the two adults were not breathing and had no pulse when firefighters rescued them from the house, he said. Firefighters were able to revive the two children, but the adults were pronounced dead at the scene.
The two children were airlifted to a level-one trauma center, Jankila said, and the one who survived was being treated at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for life-threatening injuries.
An online fundraiser set up for the family identified the child who died as a 9-year-old boy.
Firefighters from Hibbing and several other departments were at the scene in subzero conditions until almost 5 a.m.
By late Tuesday morning, only a vehicle from Lakes Area Fire Security of Brainerd, Minn., was at the scene. The ranch-style home with an attached two-car garage was heavily damaged, with the back side in ruins, the roof caved in and front windows shattered. Wisps of smoke rose from a couple of spots on what was left of the roof.
Although the street had been heavily sanded, ice left by the firefighting efforts continued to make footing treacherous, and the street was barricaded at intersecting streets.
Kris Anderson, who lives across the street, knows the occupants well but declined to name them, knowing that the Fire Department had not yet released their names. They were a "wonderful family," she said.
She said the three children were the couple's grandchildren. Anderson said the grandfather brought the first child out of the house and went back to attempt to get the rest, but didn't return.
Margaret Kochevar, who lives two houses down, said she was awakened early in the morning when she heard voices outside. She looked out to find emergency vehicles all over the normally quiet street.
"The flames were really high," she said. "It was terrible."
Nic Ciccha, 16, who lives nearby on the other side of the street, said he didn't know the couple well, but they were always good for a contribution when he was raising funds for the Hibbing High School hockey team. "They're nice people," he said.
Firefighters from five departments battled the blaze in 20-below temperatures and wind chills as low as 35 below. The weather made a tough job even harder, Jankila said.
"Our gear is extremely heavy," he said. "When you go inside and spray water you get soaking wet, and when you come out and it's 25 below zero at 2:30 in the morning, everything freezes rock solid. The air tanks that we use, the regulators freeze up; the hoses freeze up. ... You essentially create a skating rink, so it makes it extremely difficult to navigate any type of movement.
"It's a monumental effort, and it takes significantly more manpower to be able to perform the task than it does in June when it's not so cold."
As word spread during the day Tuesday that the Gillitzers were victims of the fire, friends and former colleagues registered their shock.
"We were on shift together — he was my captain for a few years," said Gary Conda, a retired Hibbing firefighter who at one time served as fire marshal. "He was very caring, compassionate, and everybody loved him. It's horrible. I feel so bad."
Zach Johns said he got to know the Gillitzers in recent years through hiking and biking.
"The Gillitzers were a wonderful couple," Johns said. "They were fast, fit and always in good spirits."
Reporters John Myers and Brady Slater contributed to this report.