Central Minnesota firefighters recount saving little girl from devastating house fire
Several men entered a burning building on April 7, 2021, pulling 22-month-old Alaina Schultz from the blaze and saving her life.
VERNDALE, Minn. — Four central Minnesota firefighters were recently honored with certificates of valor for their efforts in saving the life of a 22-month-old Verndale, Minn., girl.
Firefighters Jamie Line, Nate Witthuhn and Tyler Fisher of Verndale Fire Department and Austin Beier of the Wadena Fire Department were among those first to enter a flame- and smoke-filled second story bedroom to find the girl, Alaina Schultz, in the Friday, April 7, house fire.
Beier shared what it was like upon first hearing the call of the fire.
"When the pagers went off, we knew there was still a child inside," said Beier, a former Wadena firefighter.
At that moment, at about 9:45 p.m., the adrenaline rush began and pushed dozens of emergency responders to the home.
First on scene was Line who was able to get to the house in under 2 minutes. He was at a Verndale restaurant when his pager went off. Without his gear, he found it was too hot to enter the upstairs bedroom. Flames could be seen enclosed in that one room, where Alaina was just recently laid to bed.
Fisher was close behind, hoping to help without access to his gear. Within minutes of the first page, others from the Verndale Fire Department showed up and Fisher, now suited up, entered the upstairs window with Witthuhn coming in from the stairwell access. After dousing the fire, the two began a search of the room.
The Wadena Fire Department was just about a half-mile behind the Tri-County Ambulance also leaving Wadena. It was about 10 minutes from the time of the call before Beier’s rig pulled up to the scene.
"I knew there was a victim inside so I had my mask on, I was ready," Beier said.
The homeowners had set up a ladder to the second story window hoping to access Alaina from a different direction as flames were too intense from the stairway.
“It was more than just heat, the interior stuff that was burning, the smoke, it was so black,” Line said.
Beier explained how visibility was poor and he had to find his way around by touch. He felt around on the bed but could not feel the girl there.
“After not too long, I climbed on top of the bed, I actually found Alaina,” Beier said. He made sure to check every spot of where she might have been. She was only partially on the bed, her tiny hand still on the mattress. “I grabbed her and I called out to the guys — I called out that I found her.”
He handed her off to Fisher, who handed her to Ryan Schmitz (another Verndale firefighter), who was at the ready on the ladder. The girl suffered third-degree burns over 79% of her body.
In the minutes before firefighters arrived, Alaina's mother Liberty and grandmother Karen were attempting to make it to the girl. In those attempts, Liberty and Karen both received burns. Liberty was hospitalized due to her burns and smoke inhalation.
The search and rescue took just moments, but felt much longer to the firefighters.
In being recognized for the efforts, Fisher humbly said that he looks at himself as a tool among many tools used in this situation to get the job done.
“Everybody was equally important,” Fisher said. Line agreed saying that if someone hadn’t brought water they couldn’t have put out the fire. If gear hadn’t showed up they could not have gone in. Verndale Fire Chief Mike Madsen said they got lucky in getting an ambulance in time, too.
Fisher just happened to be the first one with gear in the house to put out the fire and help search. The men said their training helped them know just what to do in the situation. Madsen said he was proud of the way the crew handled the situation.
“Watching what these guys did from incident command is above and beyond what is expected,” Madsen said. “It takes extra courage to run into a burning building without your gear on. So these are well deserved.”
Fisher has been a firefighter for about six years, Witthuhn, 11 years; Line, 14 years; and Madsen, 16 years. Madsen said in those years he’s not seen a rescue of this nature.
Wadena County Sheriff Mike Carr met with the Verndale and Wadena Fire Departments and thanked them for their selfless actions and quick response that night. He recognized that it was a team effort involving multiple fire departments, EMS staff from multiple agencies, assistance from sheriff’s deputies, police officers. The added recognition for those four men was noteworthy as they each had a role in making sure Alaina would live another day. She celebrated her second birthday on June 13.
Alaina is still recovering from her burns in the Twin Cities and her mother and grandmother remain there helping her to grow stronger each day. She has made significant strides but still has significant healing where she was burned so badly.
“Alaina is still in the ICU at Hennepin County Medical Center-Burn Unit,” Karen Schultz said. “She has had all her burns removed and replaced with donor site skin and CEA skin. She is healing very well. But she still has a very long road to recovery. Alaina still needs a lot of prayers!”