Gary and Kim Zwart and their daughter, Sydnee Gehrking, are recovering after their house on Chatfield's County Road 2 burned on Jan. 3. A benefit will be held for the family on Feb. 8.   GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Gary and Kim Zwart and their daughter, Sydnee Gehrking, are recovering after their house on Chatfield's County Road 2 burned on Jan. 3. A benefit will be held for the family on Feb. 8. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
"I was at work, and my son, Jeremy, called. He'd come to use my wood shop and saw the house in flames and he called and said, 'Dad, you have to come home. Your house is on fire'," said Chatfield resident and Kingsland custodian Gary Zwart, recalling the morning of Friday, Jan. 3.

"I didn't believe it. I really didn't. I asked my son why my house was on fire, and he said, 'Dad, just get here'. It just crushed me to watch it smolder...by the time I got here, it was pretty much the way it is now," Gary added.

He admitted he felt "sort of tricked" and sent his brother-in-law into the house because he had to find out for sure that it was all destroyed. "He told me that there was no way anyone was going to enter that house," Gary stated.

He then called his wife, Kim, and told her the news. She, too, was in disbelief. "You don't really imagine what it is until you see it," Gary said.

A neighbor later told Kim and Gary that they had driven past the Zwart property at 8:30 a.m. and had seen no signs of smoke or fire, but a little over an hour later, the couple's neighbors on a hill to the east, Susan and Gary Johnson, saw smoke, called the fire department and attempted to enter the house to search for anyone at home.

According to the Zwarts, they couldn't get more than a foot inside the door so resorted to calling out as loudly as they could.

Chatfield Fire Chief Keith Bradt reported the department received the call to respond to the Zwarts' house fire at 9:37 a.m. and arrived at 9:41 a.m., but by the time the firefighters got there, the home was already engulfed and the roof was beginning to collapse. The crews were forced to fight the fire defensively - nobody could go in for any reason - and everyone could only stand and watch as what was left burned. The department pumped more than 50,000 gallons of water on the ruins. The extremely cold south wind didn't help.

Gary pointed out, "Being all wood, all cedar, it went up like a match."

For a moment, even though they knew where their 14-year-old daughter, Sydnee Gehrking was, the Zwarts were uncertain where their 24-year-old daughter, Autumn Horsman, might be, and the Chatfield Ambulance Service was on hand in case of a grim answer.

Kim explained Autumn, who had been in a serious car accident in September, was living with them while recovering and occasionally spent nights at a friend's house a few miles away.

"Sometimes she comes home after we leave for work, so we called cell phones and found out," Kim said.

While there was no loss of human life, the Zwarts had a dog, three cats and three birds they now think of daily. Gary noted, "The dog and one of the cats were rescue animals and we let them sleep on the bed with us."

There was nothing left of the seven-year-old A-frame house Kim and Gary had built to be their dream and retirement home. "Our house had rustic charm," said Kim, recounting that a good share of the furniture was handmade, the house's ceiling lined in white cedar and numerous collectibles filled the corners. "All our stuff...things we cherished are gone...our pets and our motorcycles, our nice house. I'm more devastated that my dog is gone, rather than my house, and I know that the rest of my family is okay."

Gary looked around and an hour after someone asked him what he needed, as the family settled into Kim's parents' house directly across the road, he realized "I have no clean socks...just the clothes I'm wearing."

Their immediate material devastation was short-lived, however, as family members and neighbors came, bringing them clean clothing, toiletries and food.

Gary observed, "People have been really gracious. I've found bags of clothes and food in my truck."

Kim, who works in maintenance at Charter House in Rochester, concurred, "Dave Dudek (of Chatfield) brought us outerwear and I've found bags of clothes in my car."

Surveying the piles of donated clothing surrounding them at their temporary home in Kim's snowbird parents' house, Gary said, "It's awesome...still hard to believe, especially when you're the one getting this stuff."

Kim looked around, and said, "It's not so emotional to us because we had a place to stay that's kind of like home. We take care of this place when my parents are gone and Gary's here every day in the summer."

Every now and then, Gary thinks of something he should go looking for, like his favorite motorcycle helmet. He then realizes that it, like so many other things he's thought of, was in the house or garage.

Kim speaks about her little dog in the present tense, then corrects herself. However, the couple has answered the question, "What can we do for you?" so many times they have run out of answers.

They said they have everything they absolutely need to get by on a daily basis - everything from socks to sweaters and boots - but they most need support right now as Kim asked friends listen when she needs to talk about the fire, to let her cry when she needs to and to share hugs when she needs one.

Essentially, the material things they're in need of now that the refrigerator is full of lasagna and Jell-0 are simple - Kim asked for plastic hangers and Gary suggested that if anyone had a spare Rubbermaid tote or laundry basket, it would suffice while they're in transition because purchasing new dressers while living in someone else's home just doesn't make sense, and, he reasoned, "You can never have too many totes and bins."

The Zwarts plan to rebuild on their property as soon as possible - Gary has been perusing the site and what it takes to bulldoze the remains of the house, along with another house they'd been planning to demolish.

For now, their homeownership future is in an insurance binder provided to people who have no other choice but to file a claim and itemize everything they've lost.

They're still optimistic.

Gary stated that it's "weird" to drive past his own driveway and see the charred timbers sticking out like broken bones, but he added, "Hopefully, when the ground thaws, we can start again. Not as fancy a house this time, but still all on one level and still rustic."

Kim anticipates making new memories in a new home, with plenty of occasions on which to take photographs to share with others, now that they fully understand what it is to lose all their possessions.

Their 13-year-old granddaughter, Morgan Zwart, captured their hearts with her Facebook post that read, "Today I learned a valuable lesson...if I think my life is so bad, I think of my grandpa who lost everything today in a house fire. I still have a place to sleep."

The couple commended the Chatfield fire fighters who "did their jobs and did them well," having to respond to a fire in below-zero weather and deal with wind and water freezing on the road.

They also know the blessings of having "wonderful friends and family."

Gary related that his brother, who lives up north in Backus, Minn., left at 3 a.m. and drove seven hours to get to Chatfield on Saturday, Jan. 4, and at school, the Kingsland tech manager and staff have all blocked his Facebook page so he can't see what they're planning for him. Sydnee's friends at Chatfield High School cleaned their closets and gave her clothes to wear and Charter House residents have given Kim cards and hugs.

The unpredictability of life itself seems to have proven its point to the Zwarts, but they're now so very certain of one thing: They are loved.

Benefit

A benefit has been organized to assist them in their recovery - it's slated for Saturday, Feb. 8, from 2 p.m. to midnight at the Spring Valley Community Center in downtown Spring Valley, and it features a beanbag tournament, silent auction, dinner, children's activities and music by deejay SpinDrive.

Members of the family are helping to coordinate the benefit. They include Gary's brother, Tim, and his wife, Theresa; his sister, Pam Davis, and her husband, Brian; Gary's son, Jeremy, and his wife, Nicki; and Kim's daughter, Jessica Grabau and her husband, Duane.

Jeremy is in charge of the beanbag tournament set to begin at 2 p.m. Team registration begins at 1:30 p.m., and cost is $30 per team, with a 50 percent payback.

Theresa outlined the silent auction that will start at 2 p.m. and end at 6 p.m. She said donations are starting to come in and noted there are three drop-off locations for donations, including True Value in Spring Valley, the Short Stop in Wykoff, and Dave's Barbershop in Chatfield.

"People may also donate to the fire benefit fund which has been set up at Security State Bank," Theresa said. "Donations may be made at any of their locations."

She invited those who bid on items to remain to be eligible to win, and also to stay for the dinner from 4:30 to 7 p.m., which features pulled pork sandwiches, cheesy potatoes, corn, pickles, coffee and cookies.

"Judy Tart in the Kingsland High School kitchen is helping prepare the menu and the food, Ody's Country Meats is donating the processing fee for the pork, and the Wolf's Den in Ostrander is donating the meat," Theresa noted. "We are looking for donations of barbecue sauce, coffee, pickles, et cetera."

Children's activities, from 2 to 4:30 p.m., include face-painting by the Kingsland Key Club and the Kingsland FFA chapter will host a coloring corner for children to color pictures to leave for the Zwart family.

Additionally, Theresa said, "People are encouraged to bring and leave pictures for the family, as all of theirs were lost in the fire. We hope to put them in an album for them and possibly scan them on a disk as well after the benefit."

She related that the extended family "never gave it a second thought" when it came to planning a benefit. "It was something that we immediately started working on. If the roles were reversed, I know they would be doing the same thing for us," she said. "It is so hard to imagine losing everything you have worked your entire life for! Yet, even in a situation such as this, their spirits are incredible. They will pick up the pieces and get through this ordeal."

Theresa concluded, "We hope people come out to show their support by having supper, bidding on silent auction items, playing in the beanbag tournament or just giving the family a hug. The support from the area communities has been overwhelming and is certainly helping them get through this difficult time. Pass the word, come out and show your support."

Donations to the fire benefit fund should be made out to the Gary and Kim Zwart Fire Benefit Fund. For more information on the benefit, contact Jeremy Zwart at (507) 251-9736.