Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He drove through fire to save a life

Vita druggist one of many who stepped up in crisis

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VITA -- In terms of property, the fire was a disaster. Four homes and a bridge were destroyed. Hundreds of acres of land were scorched black.

In terms of people, though, the fire was a heartening example of how a small town takes care of its own. The fact no one was injured was a credit to the sweat and guts of townsfolk.

Take Lothar Dueck, the community's pharmacist for 31 years. He saved a customer's life Tuesday.

About 12:30 p.m., he looked out the window of the Dueck Drug Store and saw a plume of smoke in the southwest near Sandra Andresen's acreage. He thought he would drive out and check on his customer.

Andresen was home alone, baking. She didn't realize she was completely surrounded by smoke and fire and had no transportation because her husband was at work and their other vehicle was in the shop.

By the time the pharmacist arrived, the roof of her house was burning and the barn was already destroyed. He and Andresen drove out through a wall of smoke and flames, and soon the house was engulfed in fire.

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"He drove through the flames blocking my parents' driveway, picked up my mom and drove out again in heavier flames, charring/burning his truck. If it wasn't for Lothar, my mom would have been a casualty of this fire," said an email from Sandra's son, Chris Andresen.

When asked in an interview Wednesday if all his customers get such special treatment, Dueck smiled and pointed to a sign on the wall of his store: "We do the little things right."

The pharmacist's timely arrival is only one of many neighbour-helping-neighbour stories that will keep Vita's coffee row abuzz for weeks.

Even the premier commended the community's all-out involvement.

"I'm always impressed with the ways communities can mobilize," Greg Selinger said after touring the area by helicopter Wednesday afternoon and getting briefed on how 60 volunteer firefighters from four departments united to save this town of 350.

A state of emergency was declared shortly after noon Tuesday and the town was evacuated, including patients in the town hospital. Firefighters and town officials went door to door in fire trucks, SUVs and all-terrain vehicles to make sure nobody stayed behind.

The Vita Bible Centre and Tim Hortons supplied free food and beverages.

Steinbach Mennonite Church offered its building as a contact centre for evacuated residents and found billets for anyone in need.

Vita High School offered coffee, meeting rooms and phones.

"The community banded together to help in any way they could," said Stuartburn Reeve Jim Swidersky, who received many phone calls from people willing to join in.

At the hub of the firefighting effort was Vita fire Chief Orest Paciorka. When interviewed briefly Wednesday afternoon, he snarled, "No pictures!" at the Free Press photographer, and for good reason. He looked terrible. The chief was bleary-eyed after more than 24 hours of co-ordinating the effort to save his town. He had slept only one hour overnight and his job wasn't done -- the fire was still burning in several places in the countryside.

"It was a perfect storm of high winds and bone-dry conditions," said Paciorka. He initially feared the blaze would "destroy half the town, but the guys stood their ground and wouldn't give in."

The effort took an ugly twist when the firefighting teams discovered an MTS service called Fleetnet, a closed system used by emergency professionals, went down at 11 a.m. Tuesday as the fire was approaching. The teams of firefighters relied on an improvised network of cellphones to co-ordinate their efforts.

If it rains and snows near Vita on Friday as predicted, the fire chief admitted he would turn a cartwheel of delight at the help from Mother Nature.

The precipitation came a day late for Margaretha Martens and her husband, Jacob, who inspected the rubble Wednesday that used to be their home. They took comfort in their faith.

"We don't turn from the Lord now," said Margaretha. "We are safe and we don't question His ways."

She was grateful for the loving support of their seven grown children and their church family at Sommerfeld Mennonite Church in New Bothwell.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2012 A6

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