NEW ULM, MINN. - Its once stately porch was blackened, its roof caved in, its perimeter marked by the yellow tape of disaster. But the scores of somber people who came by the Bohemian Bed and Breakfast in this picturesque south-central Minnesota town Sunday had no trouble recalling the iconic structure that had stood since 1899 at the corner of S. German Street.
They ignored swarms of gnats and the intensifying heat to stand and grieve for the six people who died there early Saturday in a horrific fire. They stared in disbelief at the blackened structure.
"I think the whole town is devastated," said Penny Purtzer, who as a child played in the inn when her aunt and uncle owned it. "It was a gorgeous house."
Authorities still have not released the names of the dead, who have been turned over to the Ramsey County medical examiner's office for autopsies. But neighbors and friends have identified three of them as Bobbi McCrea, 48, who ran the B&B, and her daughters Abby, 15, and Savannah, 4.
Authorities are still working to determine a cause for the fire, one of the deadliest in New Ulm history.
On Sunday, as a mound of flowers and memorial gifts grew outside the burned home, residents stopped to reminisce about McCrea, a social activist and patroness of the arts.
"If she went around the block, which she always did with the baby, it would take her an hour because she would stop to talk to everybody," said Gary Rodewald, 49, a neighbor who went to grade school with McCrea. "She must have had a million friends."
Even visitors who weren't acquainted with the inn's popular owner and her family were familiar with the history of the Victorian house.
"That was a beautiful house," said Kathi Lindermann, 70, who was among those who left flowers at the memorial.
Police and firefighters responded to the fire at about 1:45 a.m. on Saturday. Within minutes, it had engulfed the front of the house.
"We've never had a fire as tragic as this," said New Ulm Police Cmdr. Dave Borchert. He said arson isn't considered likely.
Doug Neville, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said Sunday that investigators have not determined if the fire was intentionally or accidentally set.
"It's really too early to speculate on anything," he said.
He noted that investigators from the state fire marshal's office, who were not considered essential personnel during the state government shutdown, were nonetheless called to duty on Saturday.
"We had contingency plans in place in case a fire such as the one in New Ulm took place," Neville said. "There really was not much of a delay."
Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are among those investigating the fire, but the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is not involved.
A plea to a smoky window
Alex Braaten, who lives in an apartment next to the inn, said that when he smelled smoke early Saturday, he thought it was coming from a campfire.
"I heard breaking glass, and then I saw a brighter light than the street light," Braaten said.
When he looked out of his second-story window, he saw the front of the house ablaze.
He saw McCrea's fiancé, Charlie Zangl, standing next to the burning house yelling for McCrea to toss the children from the window of the third story, where the family lived. Braaten said he couldn't see anyone in the smoky window and heard no response.
The fire took about five hours to get under control, authorities said.
McCrea, a New Ulm native, had returned to her hometown in 2002 to transform the house into a bed and breakfast.
Before that, the house was long occupied by an attorney and his wife, Victor and Marie Reim. Charles and Bobbi Hintz, friends of the McCrea family, remembered parties in the elegant home.
"That's what made this house famous, when the Reims lived here, because they were always entertaining people," Bobbi said. "They were very generous."
The Hintzes visited the site after attending a church service at the nearby United Church of Christ, where the pastor talked about the fire.
McCrea's parents named her after Bobbi Hintz, who went to school with McCrea's father.
Among the house's unique features was a sweeping stairway that had a landing halfway up where people would play the piano, she said.
Purtzer's aunt and uncle sold the home to McCrea in 2002.
"There were two things that are really painful," she said. "The loss of Bobbi and the darling girls. But the other thing is it was a house my aunt and uncle lived in for close to 50 years. It was a gorgeous house."
Most of all, she said, the town will miss McCrea and her family.
"I just fell in love with Bobbi," Purtzer said. "She was a creative person in every regard. She made such an impression on people, however briefly she might have met them."
Staff writer Heron Marquez Estrada contributed to this report. Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495