Jim, Roxie and Jesse Gerads were optimistic for what the new year would bring to their successful business, Jim’s Mille Lacs Disposal.
But 33 minutes after the clock struck midnight on Saturday, Jan. 1, that optimism turned to heartache with the sound of a fire pager.
Jim Gerads, a 40-year veteran of the Milaca Fire Department, was awakened by the piecing sound of his pager shortly after 12:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
In the minute or so that followed, Jim would learn that he and his fellow firefighters were being called to the headquarters of his family-run business at 205 Second Ave. NE in Milaca.
The west building — one of three owned by Jim’s Mille Lacs Disposal — was decimated by the fire. The building was home to the company’s offices, as well as its maintenance facility. Not only was the building lost, but so were six trucks: one traditional garbage truck and five roll-off trucks, said Roxie Gerads. Maintenance equipment, tools, and truck parts were also lost to the blaze, she said.
It was 12:33 a.m. when the Milaca Fire Department and Milaca Police Department were called to the scene, according to dispatch records from Mille Lacs County’s 911 center. A passerby reported an active structure fire.
Within two minutes, according to archived scanner traffic, law enforcement officers confirmed that there was fire inside the building, including in the office. Heavy smoke was present. Flames were through the roof and coming from a window.
At 12:40 a.m., mutual aid calls were placed to the Princeton and Foreston fire departments. The request was for water and manpower, according to scanner traffic. Princeton also responded with its ladder truck.
A few minutes away, Jim and Roxie Gerads were leaving their home and headed toward the business. Their son Jesse, who is also the Milaca fire chief, was out of state for a wedding when the fire erupted.
“We jumped out of bed and went flying out the door,” Roxie said.
Roxie, who was driving the Gerads’ truck, dropped Jim off at the entrance to the garage where the six trucks were parked.
Jim couldn’t get the trucks out of the building because there was no longer electricity, which was needed to open the garage doors.
At that point, Jim and Roxie went into the office on the west side of the building.
They grabbed the company’s computer server, truck driver route sheets for Monday, Jan. 3, and bills that had been printed and were ready to be mailed when staff returned Monday, Jan. 3, from the holiday weekend.
“We took it to our vehicle,” Roxie said.
That was around 12:45 a.m., and most of the fire trucks had arrived on scene, she recalled.
By 12:51, the fire had burned through the roof of the building, according to time-stamped photos taken by Roxie. At 12:57, the whole roof collapsed, her photos show. In the hours that followed, the building would become a total loss.
In the days that followed the fire, something heartfelt emerged from the Gerads’ personal tragedy.
For those who have experienced small-town living — and particularly life in Milaca — it was something that may have been expected.
The Gerads, a generous family that always seems to step up in the community’s time of need, was showered with love and support that Roxie says was overwhelming and humbling.
“Our employees, who are like our other family, were all here for us,” she said.
Community members, friends and business associates came forward with words of support and endless offers to help in any way possible, she said.
“I cannot believe the support we have received from the town, within the state, and throughout the U.S.,” she said.
“Everyone has been so thoughtful,” Roxie said.
Despite the fire, Jim’s Mille Lacs Disposal opened for business Monday, Jan. 3, without missing a beat.
“We have had an incredible support system show up, even on a holiday weekend, to get our family business up and running. We couldn’t be more impressed by everyone for their excellent expertise,” Roxie said.
Jim on Monday, Jan. 3, was on his way to Indiana to pick up two roll-off trucks the company was purchasing.
And in what might be considered a miraculous twist of fate, Jim’s Mille Lacs Disposal was operating out of new office quarters just two days after the fire.
The Gerads had for months been negotiating to purchase the Eggen’s Direct Service building at 220 Second Ave. NE for their future business expansion. The Gerads closed on the property — located directly across the street from the Jim’s Mille Lacs Disposal facilities — on Monday.
The Gerads’ IT specialist procured computers, monitors, and printers by the end of day on Saturday, Jan. 1.
The new equipment, along with the server and hard drives rescued by the Gerads in the early minutes of the fire, were up and running in the new office located in the Eggen’s Direct Service building. With the rescued route sheets, garbage pick-up and roll-off service resumed Jan. 3 as normal as possible.
With Frontier hooking up internet, computers and phone lines into the new facility, the office was buzzing and phones were answered like any busy Monday following a holiday, Roxie said.
“Milaca is an amazing community and we are so proud to be a part of it,” she said.