Tragedy struck the tight-knit community of Wauzeka Monday night when two young girls perished in a house fire on Main Street.
Firefighters were called to the Adam and Rebecca Bartels home at 11:39 p.m. Monday after a neighbor called the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department to report that the house was engulfed in flames and there was smoke coming from the windows. The caller, along with a Crawford County Sheriff’s Deputy and neighbors, attempted to gain entry into the home but couldn’t due to the large amount of smoke and fire.
The Wauzeka Fire Department and First Responders, along with the Boscobel Fire Department and Boscobel EMS, responded to the call. Below zero temperatures at the time made fire fighting difficult.
“It was a challenge; our nozzles froze up due to the cold. It was hard on our equipment and our people,” Wauzeka Fire Chief Todd Krachey said at the scene Tuesday afternoon. “We were here all night. I went to work for a little while this morning and then came back.”
After the fire was extinguished the bodies of two girls were discovered inside the house. They were identified as Lena Bartels, 12, and Trinity Bartels, 15. The girls were home alone at the time of the fire as both of their parents were at work.
Both girls were students at Wauzeka-Steuben School. Lena was in seventh grade and Trinity was a freshman.
“I received a call from the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department at 2:13 a.m. last night informing me of a house fire in the district,” said Rob Sailer, interim district administrator. “I was informed that two of our students did not survive the fire, one was in seventh grade the other in ninth grade.”
In a letter to parents in the district Tuesday morning, Sailer wrote: “Immediately after learning this information the District Emergency Crisis Plan went into effect. This started with contacting key district personnel to begin the planning process for today’s operations. Next, all staff were notified via Skylert of an emergency meeting to be held at 7:00 a.m. At that time staff were informed of the tragic loss and were provided protocol for today. The protocol consisted of a consistent message being read to all 6-12 grades students.”
That message informed parents of the tragedy, and that counselors would be available throughout the day, as well as the following information:
“At 8:00 a.m. the 7th grade class was pulled aside and met as a group with a counselor. At the same time the 9th grade class was pulled and met with another counselor. As students need counseling they are excused to leave from class. Part of the crisis management plan is to contact nearby school districts and ask to use their guidance counselor. Today, counselors from Prairie du Chien, Seneca, North Crawford, Boscobel, and Riverdale are in the District to meet with students and staff. Additionally, today we have multiple substitutes available for staff during this process. We have also been contacted by Fennimore, DeSoto, CESA 3, and Crawford County Social Services.”
Sailer said Tuesday afternoon that students were initially very upset and as the day went on they appeared to be in shock.
“I see students walking around in shells; they’re numb,” Sailer said. “I imagine the magnitude and reality of it will sink in later in the week.”
A Critical Incident Stress Management class was held at Century Hall in Wauzeka Tuesday night for Wauzeka Fire and First Responders.
“It’s been hard on our department and the community,” Krachey said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, with the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation, the State Fire Marshall and ATF agencies on scene.
“There is nothing suspicious that caused the fire,” said Sheriff Dale McCullick, “but anytime there is a loss of life we want to look into everything possible.”
A fund has been set up at Peoples State Bank for the Bartels family, with cash donations at any Peoples bank deposited directly into their savings account.
“Our deepest sympathy lays with the family and those who were close to the two amazing young ladies who were lost in this tragedy. The District will share additional information as it becomes available. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family,” Sailer wrote.