2012 had destruction, heroism

by Jim Boyle


The Star News has given the distinction of Newsmaker of the Year to a group of individuals who stepped up with courage and honor in attempts to save the lives of others.

This was the decision of Star News Editor Jim Boyle and Associate Editor Joni Astrup after they took time to page through unbound editions for 2012 and reflect on the year as it was.

Shane Schminkey and his daughter, Kailee, entered a burning home to save a life.
Shane Schminkey and his daughter, Kailee, entered a burning home to save a life.

It became apparent that many in this community when faced with scary circumstances, or worse, life-or-death situations, shed their own safety for the sake of others. This was the case this past summer, as the Elk River Police Department looked for the culprits behind a rash of criminal damage to property complaints. It was true in the case of fire breaking out in an Elk River neighborhood. And it was true when an Elk River police officer responded to a call of a suicidal female on the railroad tracks.

Unfortunately, not all the heroic acts of 2012 produced a happy ending. But it seems there was still a silver lining when it didn’t. Here’s a little on each scenario we tabbed with a piece of Newsmaker of the Year.

•Back in July an alert resident in the 19100 block of Zane Street helped Elk River police nab a trio of juveniles suspected of motor vehicle tampering.

The resident phoned 911 about 2:30 a.m. July 16 with a report of three juvenile males tampering with a motor vehicle. He observed the boys and later detained two of them, according to Elk River Police Capt. Bob Kluntz.

This citizen’s handiwork came on the heels of a rash of criminal damage to property reports. There were about two dozen of these reports taken on the east side of Elk River during a three-day period from July 3 through July 6, and additional complaints continued to roll in after that.

•Almond Drone, a 53-year-old Otsego man who suffered a heart attack while driving in Elk River Feb. 20, attracted the attention of what turned out to be an impromptu medical team.

Three nurses (in three separate vehicles), all at the same intersection at the same time, came to his aid.

Despite the assistance of the highly qualified roadside medical team, Drone died March 4 at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids.

•A police officer who pulled a suicidal woman from the train tracks seconds before a train would have hit her May 9 was honored with the Elk River Police Department’s Lifesaving Award.

Elk River Police Chief Brad Rolfe presented Officer Brian Boos with the Lifesaving Award.

“As soon as I started running, I heard the whistle of the train (from the west),” he said.

He ran faster and, as he got closer to the motionless woman, looked behind him and saw the headlight of an approaching train.

When he got to the woman, she was lying in the fetal position between the rails of the eastbound tracks, 75–100 yards east of the Main Street crossing.

He grabbed her by the arm, pulled her off the tracks and held her down until the train passed.

Within 10–20 seconds, a Northstar commuter train sped by them on the way to a Twins game. The train typically travels at about 70 mph, Rolfe said.

The officer received a thank you letter from the woman, a mother of two who had admitted she intended to end her life that day.

A video taken from the Northstar commuter train, courtesy of the Elk River Police Department, shows the view from the front of the train as it comes through Elk River heading east.

As it approaches the Main Street crossing, a squad car with its lights flashing is off to the left. Past the Main Street crossing, a police officer is seen running up to Officer Brian Boos, who is off to the right with the woman he pulled from the tracks.

•A longtime resident of Guardian Angels’ quick actions quite possibly averted tragedy.

Bonnie Backlund came to the aid of Russell Wellnitz when she was roused by the sound of a smoke alarm and stepped out into the hallway of Guardian Oaks senior housing to hear her disabled neighbor cry out for help July 11.

“I wondered what’s wrong,” Backlund said.

It became apparent to her there was a fire inside Wellnitz’s apartment. As she got closer she could hear he was hollering “fire, fire.”

She entered his apartment and saw there was a fire on the kitchen stove. “Flames shooting up,” she said.

She went back to her apartment, dialed 911 to let the fire department know of the fire and ran back with the fire extinguisher from her kitchen.

“I don’t know what came over me,” she said, noting she had never used a fire extinguisher before. “I just did what anybody would do.”

The building at 350 Evans Ave., home to 63 seniors, filled with black smoke and had to be evacuated.

Backlund was given a certificate of appreciation for her actions from Elk River Mayor John Dietz and recognized by Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham and Elk River Police Chief Brad Rolfe at a Noon to Unite event.

“It’s nothing short of amazing,” said Rita Waxon of Guardian Angels. “She’s our heroine.”

•Mike Coolidge saw a burning home in Nowthen on his way to work on Sept. 23 and stopped to investigate. He broke a window and then busted in the door to get inside to save the woman who lived there.

Coolidge says the smoke was so black and so thick he couldn’t see anything. After a couple of deep breaths, he remembered to get to the floor. That’s when he saw the woman’s white socks about three or four feet from the door.

The 64-year-old woman, later identified as Diann Evans, had burns on her upper body and was suffering from smoke inhalation. She died two months after her rescue.

Coolidge was taken to Mercy Hospital because he cut his hand and was also suffering from smoke inhalation.

He says he didn’t even think twice about going into a burning house. He says he just did what he had to do.

Coolidge and Mark Poce, who called 911, were honored with the Citizen Award of Honor from the Anoka County sheriff’s office on Oct. 15.

•Shane Schminkey, a drywaller who grew up in Elk River and returned to his childhood home, saved a neighbor from dying in an Aug. 12 house fire.

That’s when he saw an orange glow through a stand of trees that blocks his view of Barbara Jones’ house. He checked it out, and realized her home was on fire.

“Holy buckets, somebody has a big fire,” he recalls saying aloud to himself as he walked toward the street. “Then I saw it.”

His neighbor’s roof was ablaze. “The flames coming off her roof were 20 feet tall,” he recounted for the Star News.

His wife  Kari dialed 911 and Shane ran toward the burning home.

“I started screaming from the top of my lungs before I even got to the door,” he said. “I figured every second counts. I thought I was going to find a dead body.”

To his surprise when he got the door open, there was no fire or smoke inside the house until he heard the crush of breaking glass from a rear window.

Then the smoke rolled in along the ceiling. He screamed even louder as he entered. “Your house is on fire! You need to get out! You need to get out of the house! Your house is on fire!”

Jones emerged from her bedroom, awakened from the screams and not the shrill sound of smoke alarms going off.

“She looked stunned,” Schminkey recalls.

She was.

“I was very disoriented,” Jones told the Star News, as her ears soaked in the sound of Shane’s voice, the smoke alarms and what looked initially to her like the clean house she had left upon retiring to bed. As it soaked in, she was greeted by the smell of fire and Shane’s continued screams.

In the madness she ran downstairs to look for her 16-year-old son, who she had forgotten had left with his girlfriend earlier to go look for the meteor showers they had heard were coming.

By then Schminkey’s daughter Kailee had entered, and the seconds slowly ticked by and they got out. Several days later, there was still some disbelief but mostly a mixture of pain and thankfulness.

“If it wasn’t for Shane’s screeching voice and pounding my door down to get in, I wouldn’t have made it out,” she says. “Two minutes and my life would have been gone. I owe him so much.”

She’s told Shane as much, but he’s told her “You owe me nothing.

“It was instinct,” he said. “There’s people in that house. You have got to get them out. I would have run through flames. I thank God for how things turned out.”