New Ulm mom, daughters among 6 killed in fire

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH and JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: July 3, 2011 - 6:19 AM

Among the dead were the house's owner and her two daughters. Four people escaped.

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Flames engulf the Bohemian Bed & Breakfast, in New Ulm, Minn., during a fire around 2 a.m. Saturday.

Photo: Kevin Sweeney, Associated Press - Ap

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Bobbi McCrea returned to her hometown of New Ulm, Minn., in 2002 to transform an 112-year-old Victorian house into a popular bed and breakfast.

Early Saturday, her Bohemian Bed and Breakfast burst into flames, killing six, including the 48-year-old McCrea and her two daughters. They were among 10 people in the house when the fire erupted.

The others who were killed were not identified, but they were believed to be guests staying in some of the seven bedrooms used for the B&B. Their bodies were found on the first and second floors, an official said.

Four others, including McCrea's fiancé, escaped the blaze, which was roaring through the majestic inn on S. German Street when firefighters were dispatched at 1:45 a.m.

Fire Chief Paul Macho said Saturday night that two of the survivors were sent to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis while the others were treated and released.

The deadly fire hit the town hard, because the McCreas were known to so many.

"When a situation like this happens there is just a tremendous amount of support, that goes beyond family and friends," Police Chief Myron Wieland said, adding that the six killed in a fire were the most he could recall in his 23-year career in New Ulm.

McCrea's mother and older sister spent Saturday a half block from the scene, with about 40 friends and extended family members around them, said Wieland, who went to school with the sister.

A church across the alley from the charred building opened its doors during the day so family members could hear from authorities, Wieland said.

The fire took about five hours to get under control, Wieland said. Its cause is not known, but a state fire marshal is investigating. The bodies of the six were sent to the Ramsey County medical examiner's office for autopsies.

A toll felt near and far

Victim Abby McCrea, 15, attended New Ulm High School, friends said. Her sister, Savannah, who also died, would have turned 4 this month. They lived with Savannah's father, McCrea's fiancé, Charlie Zangl, on the home's third floor.

Savannah was a bridesmaid last month at the wedding of Zangl's daughter, Emmy, and Kevin Landrum. Savannah looked cute in her silk and lace dress, Landrum said. He said McCrea and Zangl, a 3M employee, helped immensely with the wedding. "You wouldn't find anybody with a bigger heart than Bobbi," Landrum said.

McCrea "loved life, lived it to the fullest and was always on the go," said sister Jennie Backstrom of Turlock, Calif. "She definitely had her own ideas and a creative sense. We'd say, 'Oh, my gosh; what's Bobbi doing now?' But she made it work."

Thousands of miles away, Ben Mignot was mourning the loss of the family from his home in Angers, France.

The 19-year-old lived with the McCrea family for seven months this year while attending New Ulm High School as a foreign exchange student. He left just three weeks ago and found out about Saturday's tragedy via Facebook.

"I was just destroyed," he said. "They were just so nice. All of the time, they made me feel comfortable. I can't even imagine; that could have been me."

He said McCrea was excited to be getting married. "She was just a happy woman," Mignot said.

Devoted to friends and theater

McCrea, the second-oldest child of four, grew up and graduated from high school in New Ulm. She moved to Oregon with her first husband but returned to open and run the bed and breakfast with her second husband, Mark. McCrea also worked with at-risk teens at a New Ulm group home and was a lifelong theater enthusiast and actor.

Justin Liepert worked with McCrea with the New Ulm Actors Community Theater, which performed a dinner theater drama two weeks ago. He said she was eccentric and creative, and served on the group's board of directors. "She was very devoted to theater," he said.

Around 10 p.m. Friday, McCrea had posted on her Twitter account that she was "providing shelter from the storm" that hit much of Minnesota. She added: "more important, good company swept in. wow."

The last fatal fire in New Ulm was in February 2010, when David and Marlene Gulden, 68 and 54, were killed in a fire in their Cottonwood Street home.

kelly.smith@startribune.com • 612-673-4141 jadams@startribune.com • 952-707-9996

HOW TO HELP

To help the fiancé of Bobbi McCrea and father of 3-year-old Savannah McCrea, contribute to a fund at Merchants Bank of Winona, c/o Emmy Zangl, 102 E. Third St. Winona, MN 55987.

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