Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Picking up the pieces after Wellington Crescent mansion fire

Austrian family's mansion destroyed by fire, but they're not going anywhere

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Karl and Petra Dornetschuber and their kids, Ben and Anna,  in the lobby of the Fairmont hotel, where they are staying after their Wellington Crescent home (below) burned  to the ground.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Karl and Petra Dornetschuber and their kids, Ben and Anna, in the lobby of the Fairmont hotel, where they are staying after their Wellington Crescent home (below) burned to the ground. Photo Store

There was an aura of mystery about the Austrian couple with the two young children when they arrived in Winnipeg six years ago and moved into the mansion at 1021 Wellington Cres. that had been home over the decades to some the wealthiest and most prominent families in the city.

Next-door neighbour Archie Cham was particularly curious.

Cham loves Winnipeg. But he wondered why a couple from Europe -- who obviously had enough money to move anywhere in the world -- chose Winnipeg of all places.

Cham was still wondering that, even after he invited Karl Dornetschuber and his wife, Petra, to a welcome-to-Winnipeg dinner party and, in the course of conversation, asked his new neighbour the question. Dornetschuber said his family had owned a sand-and-gravel business in Austria and some years ago he had bought a large pit property north of Winnipeg. That was all the answer the dinner table got.

Other than the sunshine. Dornetschuber said he enjoyed the Prairie sunshine.

It took more than five years, and a devastating house fire on a frigid February Sunday morning, to get a deeper answer. A more personal one.

-- -- --

"Remember me?" I asked Dornetschuber when I reached him on the phone this week.

My wife, Athina, and I had been guests at Cham's welcoming dinner party.

"Yeah, sure," he answered in his pronounced Austrian accent.

Naturally, the next question concerned how he, Petra, and the kids, Ben, 10, and Anna, 7, had been doing since the fire two weeks ago.

Their elegant home had been featured in the Free Press in September 2004 when it landed on the market for what was a massive listing price at the time: $1.9 million.

"The home has, through the years, been owned by some of the most wealthy of Winnipeg's citizens; families with the names of Sures, Smith, Peterson, Halter, Sifton and Asper," Gloria Taylor wrote back then.

Now, what Dornetschuber had called the family's dream house -- extensively remodelled and expanded to almost 9,000 square feet -- looked like a war-zone nightmare.

"Oh, well," he began with a sigh. "It's a tough time. We hope that the most difficult week is behind us. It's very difficult."

He suggested they are all still in shock.

"We try to focus as positive as possible," he added. "And just life goes on."

For the time being, life goes on at the Fairmont Winnipeg hotel, where they're staying. They had been at a hotel by the West Edmonton Mall on a weekend vacation with the kids that Sunday nearly two weeks ago, when Dornetschuber learned a fire was raging out of control in the family home. That was a full two days after they left Winnipeg early Friday morning.

It wasn't only their home, and everything in it, that was destroyed. The business was operated out of the house.

Friday, the Office of the Fire Commissioner said the insurance company has estimated the total loss -- with contents -- at between $10 million and $12 million.

So far.

That made me wonder again, as my friend Archie Cham had back in 2008, why the family had come so far from their native Austria.

And if they regretted it now.

Dornetschuber explained why, in a way everyone can understand.

It was because of having young kids and so little time to see them in Austria. He took over the family's sand-and-gravel business at 18 years old.

"It was a very good business, but it was not an eight-hour business day for me. No weekends and many, many hours a day. Almost no time for family."

In 1999, he bought a large gravel operation 40 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

So, in 2006, he sold the Austrian operation to concentrate on the Canadian company, which consumed less time. Two years later, they were living on Wellington Crescent. And now they're homeless and wondering what's next.

I wondered if anyone had reached out to Dornetschuber and his family since they arrived home to discover they didn't have one.

"Oh yeah; support is big-time," Dornetschuber said.

He said nearly a dozen families offered to let them stay in their homes.

"Whatever we would have asked, they would help us."

He said he wanted to thank everyone who has offered them support.

But, the sudden loss has also opened the door to doing what Archie Cham wondered why they hadn't done originally -- move somewhere else in the world. A few days ago, Dornetschuber sat the family down for that discussion.

"Do we like to move back to Austria? Do we like to move somewhere else? Now we have any possibility."

But the children didn't want to leave their schools and the friends who have showered them with Lego and books almost every day since the fire.

"Even my wife, who sometimes, quite understandably, says it's too cold here in Winnipeg; even my wife said, no, she likes to stay here. Especially with the support we're getting from the community."

"So it's cold here," I surmised, "but it's really warm, too?"

Yeah, he laughed.

So that leaves one aura of mystery about the Austrian family that adopted Winnipeg as its home, and will probably rebuild on the same property.

What caused the fire?

Dornetschuber said someone at the Office of the Fire Commissioner suggested to him it was an electrical fault somewhere in the kitchen.

Officially, the Office of the Fire Commissioner is saying the investigation continues.

gordon.sinclair@freeprerss.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 B1

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