Linwood couple reflects on Thanksgiving Day fire that destroyed their home and the response by the community that followed

It was a Thanksgiving Day like most others. Geno and Staci Christensen, along with their 4-year old, were hosting Staci’s sister and her family at their Linwood home. Her sister walked in and set her purse and other items by the patio door, just like dozens of times before. 

Later that day, at about 4:30 p.m., Staci had been cooking in the kitchen while the men were inside preparing to fry the turkey in an oil fryer, which had been set up outside.

Then the smoke detectors started going off.

Geno wondered what was going on. Staci just thought, “Is this real?” 

The question of whether or not it was real was answered in a matter of seconds, when the couple heard an explosion. At that point, Geno said, “It was panic.”

“I went out the kitchen door and looked, and then half the house was on fire,” Staci said. “It was so fast.”

The cause of the fire is still unknown. The assumption is the oil fryer, but investigators have not found the actual cause — if the oil fryer had been accidentally tipped over, or if there was a malfunction in the fryer.

Meanwhile, Geno and Staci’s 4-year-old, Aria, was downstairs with her three cousins.

Geno, carrying nothing but his cellphone in his pocket – an unusual thing for him to do – took off onto the 15-foot-high deck while his brother-in-law quickly shuffled the kids out to the deck. The doorways they’d go out normally – both through the garage or out the front door – were already covered in flames. 

“You never think it’s going to happen to you,” Staci said. “You’re like ‘Why do I need a fire escape plan?’ and then you realize why you need one.”

By the time the whole family had made it onto the deck, within just a couple of minutes, the house was already three-quarters engulfed in flames. No one had time to grab any items – cellphones, wallets, keys, mementos, clothes.

No one even had shoes on, despite the cold ground as temperatures hovered around 20, the coldest it had been all month. 

“I had one slipper,” Geno said. 

“I didn’t even process grabbing something. I was just like, ‘Where are the kids and get out.’

“My cellphone was literally 5 feet from where we left, and I didn’t even process getting it. It just didn’t matter,” Staci said. 

The only way off the deck to safety was to jump. Geno jumped down first, then yelled to his brother-in-law to toss the kids off the deck, as he’d catch them. He caught them all and sent them to the neighbor’s house. He was preparing to catch Staci, who is pregnant, and that’s when he saw the flames ignite in the kitchen. Realizing the gas line leads to the kitchen, he rushed to the side and turned off the gas to the house, with Staci yelling, “Where are you going? Stay there for a minute!”

He rushed back, caught Staci, her sister and her brother-in-law.

“The flames were out of the kitchen door when my brother-in-law jumped,” Geno said.

All of the occupants, including Staci and her unborn child, escaped without injury.

“If there wasn’t quick action – ‘throw me kids, let’s go, we ain’t got time.’ And we literally didn’t,” Geno said. “If any of us would’ve tried to go in to get anything to save one thing, they wouldn’t be here today.”

Within 20 minutes, their house was completely destroyed; the only physical remnants of their lives left were a small handful of photos and four Christmas presents for the kids they’d already purchased. Firefighters had such difficulty making sure hot spots were tamped out that an excavator came in to tear down the remnants of the house that remained.

“You lost everything. You didn’t even have a car to get into and drive away. It’s all gone,” Geno said.

In those early moments, panic had turned to emergency mode of just trying to get everyone out of the house and all other thoughts fell by the wayside.

“You didn’t have emotion, really. We were so shocked and just thankful that everyone was OK that nothing else was processing,” Staci said. 

The family took shelter with their neighbor, whose fiancè works with the Stacy-Lent Fire Department. 

“She kind of knew what to do,” Staci said. 

She began calling the Red Cross and other people she knew to get Aria clothes and “to make sure she was settled and OK,” and asking neighbors to help look for the dog, who had run off after the fire, Staci said. “She was just like a little angel that was there that night. She came to our rescue with anything she could do.”

‘Overwhelmed’

Returning to the site the next day, they said, was the hardest. Staci’s two oldest children were with their father for Thanksgiving but were there the next day to take the loss in.

“There were so many tears the next day and so much reality that everything we had was gone,” she said.

“Overwhelming” is the word Staci uses to describe the next few days, in two separate ways. 

The couple were overwhelmed by the tasks now set before them: phone calls back and forth with insurance companies; trying to figure out transportation, housing and schooling; and taking care of the children.

“It’s just a lot in a little bit of time,” she said.

The other part of “overwhelming,” they both agreed, was the compassion and support they received from their neighbors, the community, and even across the country. 

“We didn’t have our wallets, we didn’t have anything. You know? We got no driver’s license, we got no credit cards, we got nothing,” Geno said. 

A GoFundMe account was promptly set up for the family, which has since garnered more than $23,000. 

“The next day I had three neighbors giving me clothes — Carhartt work-outside clothes. I was able to go to work right away because then I have work apparel,” Geno said. “And just people [who] worried about our kids, that they had shoes or clothes.”

Geno, who works for Canadian Pacific Railways, said CEO Keith Creel reached out to him with an email and donated to the family’s needs, and other colleagues also collected donations and sent them to the family. 

The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, where Staci works, also assisted with donations. 

“She did some shopping for the kids and dropped off stuff. She contacted our whole board of directors, collecting donations from them,” Staci said. 

Mike Kaiser from the Forest Lake Good Samaritans group brought donations of gift cards for gas and food. 

“He was another guy that helped out very huge,” Geno said.

The call went out to the community at large for donations, which were dropped off at Linwood Country Gas Station and Pizza. In total, there were two U-Hauls filled with donations. 

Others offered their time and labor.

“We have a neighbor that lives down the street, and he’s been there every day helping tear down our old house. … Every day he walks down. He’s got keys for my shop, and he’ll open the shop door, grab big pieces of equipment and start cleaning up,” Geno said.

Neighbors also spent hours searching the woods for Whiskey, the family’s 200-pound mastiff who had gone missing after escaping the fire. The dog was found with just a slight limp, but otherwise was OK.

In the midst of a hard time for the family, the search for their dog lent itself to a laugh for Geno, who said he tries to find a bit of humor in everything. 

“You should hear a bunch of people at night just scream ‘Whiskey!’”

They said that some people, after having heard of the amount of money the family has received through donations, have jokingly suggested they burn down their own house. Those comments, they say, have been hurtful and misguided. 

“The donations and stuff have been great, and honestly, we’d be lost without them. But I would do anything to take that day back and have nobody experience what we did. … The experience is not worth it. The heartache is not worth it,” Staci said. 

There’s the obvious big purchases, like replacing the couple’s two vehicles: 2018 trucks purchased last year. While insurance sorted loans out, the couple had to put a down payment on vehicles for both of them. Without the money from donations, the couple said they wouldn’t have been able to purchase vehicles. They also wouldn’t be able to purchase Chromebooks for their children, who all attend Forest Lake Area Schools, to do distance learning while they resided with Geno’s mom, who lives in the southern suburbs, for 17 days after the fire. Nor would they be able to pay for a place to stay in the area from now through June – the estimated completion date of their new house – as insurance companies only reimburse payment for lodging. 

“When you think about it, [$20,000] is a decent amount of money. But when you look at our living, we have to find a place to rent for us and three children. And OK, so AirBnb, a night is $250. It doesn’t really seem like a lot, it’s kind of like a hotel. ... but it’s $7,500 per month,” Staci said.

But it’s not just the big purchases, Staci said. It’s the small things, as well as inflation that makes the money go fast. She said the money goes fast for a family of five who “literally didn’t have toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper.”

“Underwear. Simple stuff. It adds up fast,” Staci said. “Think of how expensive underwear are today, and you have to literally put underwear on five people. And socks. It’s crazy.”

‘It changes you’

The fire has changed the family – some of the changes for the worse, others, for the better.

“It changes you,” Geno said.

For Staci and Aria, the couple’s 4-year-old, any alarm makes them go into “instant panic mode,” Staci said. Recently, the two were watching a video on Staci’s phone, and simultaneously there was beeping. The two “freaked out,” and began to run for the door. But Geno, who was nearby, was able to confirm the beeping was just coming from the phone. 

Making sure the family has an escape route to safety in every location is also a lasting effect of the fire, they said. One of the options on their search for finding a place to stay until their house gets rebuilt was on the 16th floor of an apartment in St. Paul.

“We couldn’t do it after a fire,” Staci said. “That’s all we think of.”

“How many exits do you have in a house, how are you getting out? How many smoke detectors are in your house?” Geno added.

As the couple creates blueprints for their new house – to be built on the same property in Linwood – they are making sure there are plenty of emergency exits. 

Equally as much of a change is the experience of fearing for your family’s safety.

“The fear that is in you when it happens is something you never lose,” Staci said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling.”

“I think the hardest part for me out of everything is just the look in everybody’s eyes as I was catching them as they jumped … and the look in your little 4-year-old’s eyes, you know? I mean, she’s 4, it probably didn’t go through her mind like this, but ‘Are we going to die? What’s going on?’” Geno said. “I’d lose everything all over again if it meant not seeing that look in any of the kids’ eyes. Because you don’t ever want to see kids scared like that for their life. No way. I’d lose everything all over again just to make sure they don’t feel that or see that.”

“It’s the most traumatic. It’s the life and death [situation] and your family,” Staci said.

Changed for good

“This changed us in a lot of ways for the better, not for the worse,” Staci said.

Staci, who has worked at least two jobs her entire adult life, said she is ready to hang her hat up on her side business as a paralegal to spend more time with her family. 

“I was focused on working and making money and providing my family things instead of my time. And now all those things are gone, and I’m just thankful that I have [my family],” Staci said.

It’s also made the family more aware of how quickly you can lose everything you own, how it’s difficult to get back on your feet, and how tough it can be. The email Geno received from Canadian Pacific Railways CEO Keith Creel read, in part: “At some point in all of our lives, we’ve all needed a helping hand. That’s what family’s about and friends are about.”

Gino said his experience and that email have inspired him to give back.

“It’s going to stick with me probably until the day I go 6 feet under,” Gino said.

Having walked away from their home with nothing but the clothes on their backs – with no credit cards or cash to make any purchases – the couple has become passionate that the items they give away are for free and don’t end up at a location that will charge families for the items. 

“Whatever we don’t use in the future, for probably the rest of our lives, it’s who can we help without making people pay for stuff,” Geno said. 

With the great influx of items donated after the fire, the family is only able to use so much at this time. And so most of the nearly two U-Haul trucks filled with leftover donated items currently going unused by the Christensen family are being sent to Kentucky for those hit by the devastating tornado outbreak earlier this month. 

“That’s exactly what this is for. It was almost like it was the perfect time, because we had all of this stuff from all of these people and to be able to pay it forward,” Staci said.

Take the good, leave the bad

In the quiet Linwood neighborhood where the Christensens reside, most residents mostly kept to themselves.

“We live in the country because we’re all fairly quiet and like our space,” Staci said.

In the four weeks since the fire, Staci and Geno said that while their lives are still in chaos, they’re more excited than ever to rebuild in the community that’s poured so much into them in the last few weeks. 

“A lot of people say, ‘How can you think of rebuilding? Isn’t it so traumatic?’ Honestly, the part that’s not traumatic is you know you’re in a good community. Having such a supportive, amazing community makes you say ‘How could you go somewhere else?’” Staci said.

“I would’ve never thought this would’ve happened to us, and I never thought the community would’ve been there as big as they were. Any of them. All of them. You know? It’s crazy,” Geno said. “I just want to thank them. Thank them for the donations, money, food, clothes. Thank you for literally opening up my eyes to show me how much more we can do for people in life and help out. It was them that opened my eyes up to that. 

“The community, you know, they didn’t have to do that at all. ... I thank them for what they’ve done.”

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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