Deluged by the kindness of strangers Tuesday, the victims of a fierce fire that destroyed a Burnsville apartment complex Monday will experience an equally blessed Christmas Eve today.
A check for more than $17,500 will be given to each displaced family -- many of them poor before losing everything in the Burncliff Apartments fire -- thanks to a $1 million anonymous gift announced Tuesday night. They'll also get their December rent and security deposits refunded and split $100,000 more in donations.
For more than 60 households left homeless by the fire, the news of such generosity came on the heels of a day of kindness after kindness, and left many in grateful tears.
"I'm blown away," said Jackie Weller, one of the residents of the 64-unit Building A, which was destroyed. "Whoever it is, God bless you. I can't believe it. In 24 hours, I've gone from having absolutely nothing to having clothes, and now I'm going to have money to get an apartment and start over again."
Earlier Tuesday, Weller and other displaced residents gathered at a Burnsville High School shelter run by the Red Cross, where their shock and grief just two days before Christmas met the balm of a community outpouring of good will and help -- food, clothing, toys, medicine, counseling and more.
Among those who reached out to help them were students who dug into their own pockets and headed their own community drive, collecting more than $5,000 in cash, as well as clothing, toys and food.
As the school band played Christmas music, students wrapped hundreds of gifts. Businesses big and small gave, as did individuals, including those who brought in presents from under their own Christmas trees.
All of that was topped off Tuesday evening with the announcement that an anonymous donor had given $1 million to be split among families from the occupied apartments in 64-unit Building A -- a check for each of $17,543, said Frank French, chief operating officer of the Goodman Group of Chaska, which manages and owns the complex.
"It's just a phenomenal gift," he said, adding that the donor wanted the gift be distributed by the end of today so residents can enjoy Christmas.
French said he doesn't know who the donor is but that his company verified the donation is legitimate. "We have the funds and they're ready to be distributed," he said.
The checks will be distributed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today in the office of Building B, which survived the fire. They will be delivered along with three others: one returning the residents' security deposits, one returning December rent and one splitting money from two $50,000 donations from Goodman Group chairman John Goodman and fellow businessman Nasser Kazeminy.
Cause yet to be determined
Firefighters spent Tuesday morning quenching sporadic flare-ups.
In the afternoon, the building was declared safe enough for the fire marshal to begin an investigation. But it's likely to be days before authorities know the fire's cause. Burnsville police spokesman Sgt. Jeff Witte said there was no indication of what of caused the fire or where it began.
The charred, icy remnants of Building A stood as a reminder of the inferno, but residents of the adjacent building got some relief. Tenants of Building B, which was evacuated but did not burn, started returning at 2:30 p.m., French said.
Building B was in disarray following the evacuation and needed cleaning, but it was not damaged. Building A, however, appears to be a total loss.
French had no dollar estimate of the damage. He said the company intends to rebuild.
Many residents poor
Among those expressing gratitude for the outpouring of help Tuesday was Sharon Rhymes, a 44-year-old McDonald's restaurant manager whose family lost its home. Rhymes had buried her mother in Chicago on Saturday and was riding home with her family on a Greyhound bus when a friend called to say their home was on fire.
Like many others, Rhymes lost almost everything, and had no renter's insurance.
About 20 of the 60-some households in the burned building were receiving federal rent subsidies, known as Section 8 vouchers, said Mark Ulfers, executive director of the Dakota County Community Development Agency. Many of those low-income renters have physical and mental disabilities, making a search for a new home even more difficult in the winter, he said.
Ulfers is hopeful that housing can be found for them, adding that at least four Burnsville landlords called to offer housing, including some who offered rent at reduced rates.
Other displaced tenants who are low income but don't currently have a Section 8 voucher may qualify because of a special provision to help those left homeless because of fires, floods or tornadoes, Ulfers said. They could be given preference to be put at the top of the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher, he said. The Dakota County agency currently has 2,000 households waiting.
Grief for lost pets
The money and donations will go a long way toward helping those displaced, but the trauma of losing homes and pets was apparent Tuesday on the faces of those gathered at the school shelter.
Arvilla Chapman, 54, and daughters Heather McInnis, 16, and Elizabeth McInnis, 18, wept after visiting the American Boarding Kennel, where several pets were turned in. Chapman's guinea pig and Heather's hamster were not there.
"A lot of animals burned up," Chapman said.
Along with material help, the Red Cross provided counseling for the grieving. Red Cross spokeswoman Carrie Nolan marveled at the outpouring of support, especially efforts led by Burnsville High students.
"For a disaster scene, it's really pretty uplifting," she said. "People are really coming together in that holiday spirit and taking care of each other."
Dave Helke, acting principal at Burnsville High, expressed pride at how students helped. "The spirit is alive," he said.