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Four minutes to make a hero

Caution tape was placed around the Kleins’ burned home to keep people out of the abandoned looking building. (Annie Harman/Echo Press)1 / 4
Pete Woit (left) helped his neighbors Richard and Denise Klein escape their burning home through this sliding door. (Annie Harman/Echo Press) 2 / 4
Denise Klein, Pete Woit and Richard Klein survived a house fire in the Belle River Township outside of Carlos on April 15. (Annie Harman/Echo Press)3 / 4
The fire destroyed the family room and kitchen and is believed to have started on the north end of the house. (Annie Harman/Echo Press)4 / 4

In the middle of a quiet, country night, Pete Woit plugged away at his desk. Having always been a night owl, he’s become accustomed to getting work done during the late hours at home.

After getting up for a brief moment, Woit walked outside to see the clear night and the bright half-moon. It was quiet, like it usually is in Belle River.

He barely had a chance to sit down when his gut told him something didn’t seem right. Walking over to the kitchen sink, taking a quick look out the window, Woit needed a double take to be sure what he was witnessing was real.

“I saw huge flames,” Woit recalled. “I thought the whole house was on fire.”

Shortly before midnight on April 8, the home of Denise and Richard Klein in the Belle River Township went up in flames. Woit, whose home is directly across the street, placed the first 911 call at 11:42.

“My heart was flying,” Woit said. “I’m sure I was just screaming at the [911] guy and I gave them my address.”

Woit grabbed a coat and slipped on some boots as he ran across the street. That’s when he first caught sight of the truck on fire.

“It really amazed me,” said Woit. “Once I was in the yard I just started screaming their names and ‘fire!’” Woit jumped on a deck at the south side of the house, opposite of where the fire was concentrated, and began pounding on the glass sliding door.

“I kept looking for something to bust the window,” Woit explained. “But I knew it wasn’t Hollywood glass and it wouldn’t be easy.”

Shortly after pounding on the window next to the door, which Woit assumed was a bedroom, he saw a light come on. Denise then was at the sliding doors on her knees, desperately trying to get it unlocked.

“I had heard a fire alarm,” Denise said, recalling what woke her out of her sleep. “But I thought it was the TV.” When it dawned on her that is was her own, Denise hopped out of bed to see her family room in flames.

“When I woke [Richard] up, he asked where the fire extinguisher was,” said Denise with a slight chuckle. “I told him to forget the extinguisher and get to the door!”

Once Denise was able to unlock the sliding door, the smoke started billowing out. As she crawled onto the deck, coughing and choking on the fumes, there was no Richard following.

“I screamed for Richard,” Woit said. “He responded and I told him to come to the door. Then there was no sound.”

“I went into the kitchen and the black smoke and fire hit me in the face,” Richard remembered. “I remember someone hollering, but I was out for about half a minute.”

Woit wasn’t waiting for Richard to respond. He promptly ran inside to find his neighbor.

“I took about three steps when the smoke hit me,” said Woit. “The horrible, toxic fumes repelled me back out.” As Woit tried to catch his breath in between coughs, he said a million thoughts were running through his head.

“We were all alone, in the country at midnight.”

After collecting himself and taking a few deep breaths, Woit crawled into the burning building.

“He had sounded like he was right in front of me,” Woit said. “But I couldn’t see a thing.” Woit made a beeline toward Richard, knowing that if he ended up around a corner that he’d be in bad shape.

“As I was crawling, I felt his left hand,” Woit recalled. “That felt really good.”

“I couldn’t believe it; I thought it was a dream,” Richard recalled. “I saw black smoke, and then I woke up to someone pulling on me.”

Yanking on Richard’s shoulder, Woit turned around and moved toward the door in a quick pace.

“The best thing I ever saw was the outline of that sliding glass door,” Woit said. Once the three were all outside in the clean air and away from the house, they recall two things standing out.

“There was so much noise from the fire,” Woit said. They remembered the sound of the fire popping and glass breaking.

“It was roaring across the roof,” Denise added.

They also remember being alone for what felt like forever.

“Talk about feeling alone,” Woit said. “We were just sitting there while the house was burning.”

“We were standing out there for what seemed like forever,” said Denise. “It took your breath away, it was so overwhelming.”

Woit took out his cell phone to make another call to 911. The time was 11:46. Only four minutes had passed since he had first called for help from his own kitchen.

Once help arrived, the three were transported to Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria. Since being released, the Kleins said they have been astonished with the love and support they have received from their community.

“That’s the blessing in disguise,” Richard said. Neighbors have done everything from giving them clothes and a place to stay, to bringing them groceries and setting up an account at BlackRidge Bank for people to donate money to help them financially. Air Force personnel stationed with their son, Kyle Klein, in South Korea passed around a hat to donate money, along with South Korean citizens throwing in their own currency.

“People have just come out of the woodwork,” Denise added. “Everyone understands tragedy.”

As for Woit, the man many have called a hero, he believes that term is thrown around too much.

“There are so many people, volunteers, who do things every day,” Woit said. “Their pagers go off in the middle of the night and they leave their beds to help, but they get no recognition.”

The Kleins can’t help but disagree with their modest neighbor.

“What neighbor would risk their life for you?” Denise said. “Houses can be rebuilt, but a life…”

Annie Harman
Annie Harman is a reporter for Echo Press and The Osakis Review. She grew up in Detroit Lakes and graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire with a degree in print journalism and history in May 2012. Follow her on Twitter at annieharman
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