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News from the week of January 1, 2003

'We have wonderful fire dept.'

Firemen snuff out blaze just in time, family returns to open Christmas gifts

Glenda and Rollie Johnson experienced a Christmas that was just a little more memorable than they'd planned.

More than a dozen family members gathered at the Johnson's Tracy home to enjoy Christmas dinner. That evening, the family opened gifts around a decorated tree. In between times, they looked on in dismay as smoke and flames billowed from the Johnson home at 573 Fifth St.

“Every year, I always want Christmas to be memorable for everyone,” Glenda Johnson said Monday morning. “But this is a Christmas no one will ever forget.”

On Christmas Day, shortly after 4 p.m., the Tracy Fire Department answered a 911-fire call at the Johnson house. Firemen quickly prevented the fire from spreading, greatly minimizing damage to the house. After emergency carpentry repairs, the Johnsons were able to return to their home that night to open their Christmas presents.

“We are just thankful that everyone got out and that no one was hurt,” Johnson said.

Dennis Vandeputte, Tracy fire chief, said the fire damage could easily have been much worse. By the time firemen arrived, the blaze had crept up the house's south wall to the attic. Five or six roof joists were already charred by the time firemen were able to attack the heat.

“If we had gotten there just a couple of minutes later, we would have been in trouble. It was really close,” the fire chief said.

Dennis Vandeputte takes over as Tracy Fire Chief

Keith Engesser steps down after six years as chief

A changing of the guard is taking place on the Tracy Volunteer Fire Department.

After six years as fire chief, Keith Engesser is stepping down. Dennis Vandeputte, who has been on the fire department for nearly 11 years, is the new chief. Engesser, who is remaining on the fire department, decided to step down as chief for two reasons.

“There are some good, young fire fighters on the department. It's time for them to take over,” he said. The other factor is a time issue for Engesser, who operates his own business, Whitey's Body Shop.

But while Engesser is retiring as chief, he plans to remain involved with the fire department he has served for 20 years. “I will still be on the department,” he said. “I still enjoy it.”

Engesser said he's seen his share of the good and the bad during his tenure as chief. But what really stands out in his mind is the way the community has supported the department.

“What amazes me is how the people in town help us as far as donations. Every time we need something they're there,” he said. For example, the department recently had a donation from the Legion and another source for the purchase of cold-water rescue suits. The suits will be ordered this week. “We didn't even go out and ask,” Engesser said.

Another donation, a thermal imaging camera, was helpful in last week's rescue of two men from the icy waters of Lake Yankton in Balaton.

Other memorable events include helping out other towns in time of need. Since Engesser took over as chief, the department has come to the aid of residents in St. Peter and Comfrey following tornadoes, and the community of Granite Falls following a tornado and flooding, to name a few.

Engesser credits the firefighters on the department for their willingness to undergo training several times a month, in addition to taking care of the trucks and fire hall.

“They train really hard,” he said. “Sometimes I've had people ask me, `How do you get them to do that?' I think they're just proud of the department.” He said all the hard work has paid off for the department—both for the safety of the people the department helps and the fire fighters themselves. “You can see it at fires. It pays off.”

Don Polzine bids farewell as Tracy public works head

Don Polzine, Tracy Public Works director, says he likes many things about his job.

He enjoys the camaraderie of the people he works with. He likes the feeling of accomplishment when difficult tasks are completed. He feels good about helping others. He likes the variety of the work, and even the unpredictability and excitement that can result when the unexpected happens.

But after Friday night, if a water main breaks at 2 a.m., and it's 10 degrees below zero, the veteran City of Tracy worker won't mind being able to stay home and sleep through the emergency.

“I'm not going to miss that one bit,” Polzine smiles, “That can get pretty miserable.”

Effective Friday, Polzine is retiring from the position he has held since March of 1976.

“I feel like it is time to do something else,” Polzine, 58, explains. He intends to get a part-time job and keep busy. But, he adds, he is looking forward to not being tied down by the responsibilities of public works director. “I'll be doing some more hunting and fishing. I'd like to be able to go when I want to go.”

United Fund gives out $12,000

The Tracy United Fund concluded its 2002 campaign with collections of $12,100.

Although the drive ended up with less money than last year and $900 short of a $13,000 goal, United Fund board member Clara Andrews expressed appreciation for the money that was given.

"We wish to thank all businesses in and around the community and the many single contributions that were given to this most worthy cause," she said.

Money was distributed to 24 area non-profit organizations and causes. Groups receiving United Fund checks are:

Tracy Ambulance Service, Community Education, ECCO-Hope Day Activity Center, Tracy Food Shelf, Tracy After-Prom committee, Tracy Elementary School assistance fund, Tracy Boy and Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts,

Tracy Senior Center, Wee World Pre-School, Tracy Area Medical Services Auxiliary, St. Mary's School student assistance, Rainbow Pre-School, Tracy Aquatic Center, Fine Arts Council of Tracy,

Tracy School Peer Helpers, Senior Nutrition, American Red Cross, Camp SOS, American Cancer Society, New Horizons Crisis Center, Prairie Home Hospice, Salvation Army.

Plunge through ice happens with frightening suddenness

(Editor's Note— Ice conditions throughout much of Minnesota remain dangerous. As of Dec. 27, six people have died after falling through the ice.)

By Cheryl Barrett

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The blackness. Randy Evans remembers first the blackness. And then, the sudden, frightening plunge into the icy waters of Lake Washington in Le Sueur County.

Evans is a Regional Enforcement Supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at New Ulm. During his 25 years with the DNR, Evans has delivered countless ice safety messages to the public. He has witnessed first-hand the tragedy of drownings.

And now, on this early December night, Evans struggles to remain calm as he gropes in the water for the ledge of ice encircling him. Evans knew he was in serious trouble, and that there was no one nearby to help him.

The evening of Dec. 11, 2002, began ordinarily enough for Evans, who lives on Lake Washington. He and a friend decide to go to a nearby marina on the lake at about 5:30 p.m. to celebrate the friend's birthday. They are there just ten minutes when a young man bursts in, hollering for help. Two elderly men have gone through the ice.

Evans immediately announces that he is a "state game warden" and asks the owner of the marina if he has any rope and flotation devices.

The owner finds two ropes, a life jacket and a flotation cushion. Evans grabs the equipment and jumps on the back of the young man's ATV.

"As we got closer to where the accident happened, I noticed there were a few people standing around with flashlights, "Evans said. "At that point I told the driver of the ATV to stay back from the area as I was concerned that the ATV might go through the ice."

As the driver stops, the people already at the scene begin shouting for the ATV to come closer as they have managed to get the victims out of the water. Evans jumps off and walks to the site as the ATV operator cautiously drives ahead. When Evans reaches the accident location, he again announces that he is a state game warden and tells the others to get the two victims to shore immediately. Hypothermia is now the danger, especially for two elderly men.

Tracy Chamber honors businesses

The Tracy Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors recognized several Tracy businesses last week. Business owners at four new enterprises were recognized, while a fifth business received an improvement award.