March 14, 2023 at 10:44 p.m.
Counting their blessings
Cruz family recovering from fire with humbling support, faith
Humbling is the word Heather Cruz uses to explain her feelings after the rural Farming house she and husband, Brandon, and their sons, Kipp, 9, and Case, 6, called home was deemed a total loss following a Feb. 3 fire.
“People have been so willing to help and are praying for us,” she said March 1 sitting next to Brandon at a temporary residence until a new house is constructed.
“In a world of such negativity, it’s an amazing insight into how people really care,” Brandon added.
It might be the bouquet of flowers they were gifted on Valentine’s Day, money raised from valentine’s baskets sold at a local business or a portion of one-day sales at another business. Then there is the family that offered an unoccupied house for them to live in right after the fire, and the many people who have supported them.
Unconditional support from family, friends, neighbors and the community pulls emotions just as they’ve felt once before. Ten years ago when their day-old daughter, Cardi, passed away from a conditional heart defect, people surrounded them with love, prayers and support much like today.
Thankfully, they were able to save some of Cardi’s treasured items following the fire, including her foot and handprint imprinted in a ceramic heart displayed in their living room.
Memories of Feb. 3 are imprinted in their minds. That morning Heather drove the boys to Holy Family School, while she went to work at Albany City Hall where she is an administrative assistant for the city and police department. Brandon, who is a safety coordinator for Star Energy Services in Alexandria, was working from home. He had left mid-morning to read a book to Case’s kindergarten class for Catholic Schools Week. He returned home, hooked their fish house up to the truck and left the house around 1:30 p.m. for a scheduled family fishing excursion on Kings Lake near Freeport.
Just before 5 p.m., Heather left work to pick up the boys from HFS as the boys stayed after school to attend a school dance. After that, it was planned they would go home and pick up their two dogs and head out the lake, when she received a phone call from Albany Fire Chief Gary Winkels asking her if anyone was home.
“I can remember telling him, ‘No, I’m picking up the boys from the school dance.’ Gary replied back to me in a panicked voice, ‘Heather, your house is on fire,’” Heather said.
She told him their two dogs were in the basement in a kennel, and he asked her what the best way was into the house to retrieve them.
Heather admits a “flood of emotions” hit her as she told their sons they had to go because of an emergency, as she called Brandon. She followed the Albany Fire Department’s ladder truck to their house and stayed in her vehicle at the end of their long driveway while watching firefighters from Albany, Avon and St. Martin arrive on scene, knowing she was living out her worst fear since she was a child – a house fire. Family soon surrounded her, tending to their boys. Brandon arrived and, in talking to a Stearns County deputy, learned their two dogs succumbed to smoke inhalation. Lola, their wiener dog, would have been 14 years old, and Renn, a labrador/shepherd mix, whom they recently rescued from the humane society in September.
“The deputy expressed his sympathy, and his words were when they were able to get to the dogs in the kennel in the laundry room, both dogs had been passed for a while,” Heather said.
Brandon said his mind went to “Did I do something or did something happen that I didn’t catch” earlier that day. But he knew they didn’t have their fireplace on, and he did not notice anything unusual before he left the house that was built in 1977. They have lived in the home since 2011 and have made the house a home of their own.
“The fire was deemed accidental, electrical fault in the furnace room,” Brandon said. “The insurance company declared it a total loss.”
They are thankful they were able to save some personal belongings, since all the rooms in the house were touched by heavy smoke, fire and water. They are working with a restoration company to restore those retrieved items. That includes Cardi’s treasured items, their wedding album and Heather’s wedding dress. Brandon talks about the box of personal Christmas ornaments their sons made in either day care or school that they found in a tuck-under storage area.
“It’s about those special homemade items that we hold near and dear to our hearts,” Heather said.
She has not been able to return to the house since the fire. Instead, she looks forward to returning back to the property, where new memories will be made.
“Soon, we can have the house removed and have a clean slate and start building,” Brandon said.
Brandon makes trips there a few times a week to check on and feed the two outdoor cats that they called “good mousers.”
They had no doubt they would rebuild at the same location because they love country living. Heather grew up in rural Albany, the daughter of Kevin and Sue Shay, and Brandon, who was raised in Melrose, the son of Jose Cruz and Randy and Sue Moening, learned to love rural life.
They have a focus on moving forward – prioritizing family first and getting the ball rolling on house plans and designs.
“Less is more,” is a lesson Heather learned.
“Like having 24 spatulas when you only use two,” Brandon said.
They have also learned the importance of documenting items in their home, room by room, and storing the information in a home safe or safety deposit box, which would have been a big help now as they determine their inventory.
Brandon said good things come out of difficult times, including how people care for one another. The community outreach has been massive, Heather said, and it is a huge factor that keeps them going.
“You have to stay positive,” Brandon said. “It’s not in your hands. It’s in God’s hands.”
They are beyond grateful to firefighters who responded that day, many whom they know.
“We have our future to look forward to,” Heather said. “We are counting our blessings.”