Marlin Heldstab stood in front of his garage Thursday afternoon and shuffled through a collection of smoke-laden debris salvaged from the Dec. 16 fire at his Woolworth Street home.
The garage, the only structure left undamaged after the blaze, now served as a temporary resting ground for the photographs, memorabilia and clothing that had been wrested from the ashen debris.
“You can’t get the smoke out of it though,” he said, referring the persistent aroma of fire that seemed to linger on all of his family’s personal belongings.
The night of the fire, an outpouring of community and family assistance had managed to save as many items as possible, he said.
“That night, everybody was working for hours,” he said. “It’s overwhelming the support we’ve been getting.”
And the support only began there, said their son, Summerville Elementary School Superintendent Mitch Heldstab.
“It's been unbelievable. People are bringing over food, people have come off the street and handed them money,” he said. “The offers out there have been tremendous. The offers for financial support have been incredible.”
Marlin and his wife, Erline Heldstab, 82, loom large in the educational history of Tuolumne.
Marlin, a 42-year veteran of Summerville High School athletics, and Erline, a 30-year secretary from Summerville High School, were high school sweethearts and lived at their Woolworth Street home for 51 years, Marlin said.
Marlin credited the widespread community support to “what goes around, comes around.” It has been a challenge, he added, to try and deny supportive gestures from former students, student family members and acquaintances who wanted to offer whatever they could to support to rebuilding effort.
One of Marlin’s former students, Mitch Heldstab said, had offered “everything” he had to his name to help the family rebuild: a truck, a tool box, and two $5 dollar bills.
Mitch said the man would not take no for answer, and said, “your dad believed in me. No one else believed in me.”
But despite all the offers for support and aid Marlin and Erline were still without a home, and a planned reconstruction of the residence may still be months away. The couple has been living in a hotel room at Black Oak Casino since the fire.
Mitch Heldstab explained that plans to “rebuild the house from the ground up” had been postponed by a pending insurance company investigation into the cause of the fire.
The house still stands as it did in the days after the fire had been extinguished, with mounds of debris piled along the porch and a ruddy blackness emanating from most of the surfaces.
“It’s disconcerting that progress can't be made right now,” Mitch Heldstab said.
Tuolumne Fire Protection District Fire Captain Jeff Santi said the cause of the fire was still undetermined, but the agency would be assisting in the continuing insurance company investigation.
“It'll still be like a joint investigation. We’ll still be involved. They will bring out qualified experts to really dig through the rubble,” he said.
The fire is believed to have started from the exterior of the home, he said.
On Dec. 16, the Tuolumne Fire Protection District, two battalion chiefs from Cal Fire, a breathing support team from Columbia College, a truck from Rancheria Fire, a training officer from the Tuolumne County Fire Department, a fire investigation officer, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office and more than a half dozen engines from Cal Fire - Tuolumne Calaveras Unit, the Twain Harte Fire Department, the Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District, responded before 8 p.m. to fight the fire.
The home, an exterior pool house, and the family's vehicle had been destroyed, but no residents or firefighters were injured.
Helstab recalled the night of the fire and how his wife had fled out the door to safety while he was barraged with a plume of smoke.
He flailed around for the wall and busted through a side door before finding himself outside against his garage, gasping for breath, he said.
In the days following, he and his wife has been “coping with everything.”
In their family home of 51 years, they watched the first Super Bowl, and raised both children and grandchildren, he said.
“All of our family don’t want us to leave,” he said. “We’re going to rebuild on here. We want to keep it just like it is.”
Demolition would begin once the investigation had concluded, Mitch Heldstab said, and that was at least a month away.
“The memories, we’re going to have to cherish inside of our heads. We will share them as we have been doing to keep that stuff fresh. I think they've gotten over the tragedy and they are looking toward the future of rebuilding,” he said.
Marlin said that one piece of advice had given him the fortitude to rebuild and remain positive.
Marlin had called his relatives in Switzerland who reminded him of one thing: “You can do it because you’re a Heldstab.”