Fire followed by van rollover strikes southern Minnesota family
The family members were driving from a Mankato hotel because, roughly 14 hours earlier, their Minnesota Lake home had caught fire, when the crash happened.
MANKATO -- A father and his two sons were driving to see whether three pet cats were alive among the charred remains of their Minnesota Lake home when their minivan crossed into the left lane, drifted off the road and rolled several times.
Joseph Mazurkiewicz, 76, was driving a Chevy Uplander while his younger son Shawn rested in the passenger's seat. Robert, 39, talked with his father from the back seat as they headed south on state Highway 22 about 1:40 p.m. Sunday, according to the State Patrol.
They were driving from a Mankato hotel because, roughly 14 hours earlier, their Minnesota Lake home had caught fire, said Dan Schoneck, a family friend.
He got to the house on Saturday shortly before midnight, by which time it was engulfed in flames. Three fire departments would douse the fire for almost five hours, using 30,000 gallons of water.
The Mazurkiewicz men have no family nearby and were in need of a place to sleep, Schoneck said. He got them a hotel room a half hour north in Mankato and they checked in at about 2 a.m. Sunday.
Fewer than 12 hours later, the family's minivan was just south of Mapleton on the way to their damaged home when the vehicle began to drift off the road.
Joseph Mazurkiewicz had suddenly lost consciousness, Schoneck learned. Noticing the car veering into the oncoming lane, his son Robert unbuckled his seat belt and reached for the steering wheel from the back seat.
Pink road paint left by troopers Tuesday shows where the vehicle crossed the road and entered a ditch. The minivan appears to have hit an embankment covering a large concrete culvert, sending the 2-ton vehicle into the air. Schoneck confirmed this account.
State Patrol said it rolled several times over a snowy ditch and came to rest on its roof. Left over at the scene Tuesday afternoon were a shattered side-view mirror, crushed glass, broken pieces of plastic and bloodied snow.
The crash mortally injured the father and severely injured his son Robert, Schoneck said. Both were eventually airlifted to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, where Shawn, free from major injury but still bruised and sore, went to get updates on their conditions.
Mayo Clinic doctors discovered that Joseph Mazurkiewicz is essentially brain dead and decided not to operate on him, Schoneck said. He was to be taken off life support Wednesday.
Robert Mazurkiewicz had a slew of surgeries to repair broken bones in his spine and ribs as well as a laceration on his scalp, Schoneck said. He also shattered his shoulder and suffered a collapsed lung.
A car crash he was in as a child had already left Robert with debilitating chronic back pain. He'll have to wear back and neck braces while he recovers, Schoneck learned from doctors.
Schoneck started a GoFundMe page Monday to help cover the family's medical and home expenses.
He said the tight-knit family doesn't have much money. Shawn Mazurkiewicz is an employee at Schoneck's business, an auto parts manufacturer in Minnesota Lake. His wages supplemented Social Security income received by his father. Joseph's wife and the brothers' mother, Kathryn Mazurkiewicz, died of cancer at age 64 in 2019.
What the fire did not destroy in the house has been frozen beneath the thousands of gallons of water sprayed over the fire, Schoneck said.
"Shawn is fine minus losing everything and, again, I truly mean they have lost it all," he said. "Shawn and Rob will be starting at zero."
The two-story West Lake Avenue home, which county records show was originally built in 1930, appears unsalvageable, officials told Schoneck. It sits about 100 yards from the Minnesota Lake Fire Department, across Main Street. Minnesota Lake is about 27 miles southeast of Mankato.
"A cigarette caused the fire," Schoneck said. The State Fire Marshal's Office would not confirm the detail, citing an active investigation. Flames spread from the top floor, burning a hole in the roof and shattering top-floor windows now covered in soot.
Minnesota Lake Police Chief Ben Standahl said several people have come to the house in search of the cats. He urged against further visitors, saying the house is condemned and structurally unsound. A bottom-floor window was opened in case any surviving pets needed an escape route.
"I understand the distress about a family pet. However, I think if somebody were to get hurt, that would just add more to their trauma," Standahl said of the surviving two sons.
Schoneck and a neighbor said the family had lived in the home for at least 15 years. As evidenced by candy canes, multi-colored string lights and a manger scene still in the yard Tuesday, they were known to deck out their house for Christmas and especially Halloween.
Chelsea Volk, a neighbor who said she grew up with Shawn, said her children and other local kids regularly toured a haunted trail the Mazurkiewiczes would arrange each Halloween.
"Joe's a good guy. I've always liked Joe," Volk said of Joseph Mazurkiewicz. "My kids would always go over there and talk to him while he's sitting outside."
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