It's been a long journey home for Willmar, Minn.,family who lost their home to arson
Coming home for Christmas is all about starting anew for Sarah and Aaron Minnick and their five children.
On Thursday they moved back to Ninth Street Southeast in Willmar, to a newly built home on the very foundation where their former home stood.
"We can start to enjoy life again,'' said Aaron Minnick, describing their new home as the nicest gift they could receive for Christmas.
Their journey home was as much one of the heart as it was of the travails that come with rebuilding. Arsonists destroyed the home that had stood on this site as the family slept.
It was sometime after 3 a.m. May 3. A smoke detector somewhere in the house shocked Sarah from her sleep.
Poisonous gases -- the cause of most home fire deaths -- were streaming into the house from the fire that had been set in the attached garage as the family slept. In the dim light, Sarah could not yet see or smell the gases floating at ceiling height.
It was when her investigations brought her to the door leading to the garage and she saw the smoke that she screamed: "Our garage is on fire.''
The three boys were sleeping downstairs. The stairway to reach them ran alongside the wall to the garage.
Hard asleep, they were slow to rouse.
The two girls were sleeping upstairs, and no less at risk. It would not be long before the inferno building in the garage invaded the attic and flames would chew stubbornly on the rafters.
Stunned and in panic, the family fled outside. The garage was engulfed in flames when Willmar firefighters reached the scene, said Aaron.
He and Sarah can't say enough about how well the fighters battled the intense blaze and saved what mattered most. The firefighters rescued the family's albums of photos and many other small items with emotional value.
Yet they felt helpless as they watched the fire destroy their home and most of its contents.
The bigger shock followed. They learned the fire had been deliberately set. A 17-year-old boy and 20-year-old man were on a rampage of crime, striking randomly. They filled cans with gas they stole from the Minnicks' vehicle in the garage. They left for a vehicle to haul their take. When they returned, they set fire to the gas they had spilled inside.
Much of what followed still seems a blur to the Minnicks, but there were good things. They found a rental home only five blocks away. The landlord allowed them to reopen their day care operations in it. Two weeks later the day care kids were back.
"I just cried,'' said Sarah. "I don't know how to explain it, but they just keep you going, you love them like your own. They just bring joy in the most unexpected ways.''
Their insurance came through too. In just days they were replacing the vehicles and household goods they had lost so suddenly.
Oldest son Austin graduated from high school. Emily continued with Junior Olympics volleyball. Earlier plans for a trip to Florida were kept.
And just after Labor Day, Warren Erickson with Energy Concepts led a crew to the site to start constructing a new, split-level home on the foundation of what had been the Minnicks' home for nearly 15 years.
There have been plenty of bumps through all of this, they said. Dealing with the emotions of hurt and anger were the hardest.
They try not to let their minds go there, but there is no escaping the realization: Any one of them -- or all -- could have lost their lives that night.
For Sarah, the journey of the heart that has made this return home so joyous happened on the day after Thanksgiving.
"I woke up and just felt pressed by God to pray for those two boys,'' she said of the arsonists. "I prayed that their hearts be touched.''
They need to be punished, she told God, but then realized that it was God's responsibility, not hers. She decided to forgive them.
"Immediately this weight lifted, but it was very painful at the same time. It just feels wonderful that I don't have to be consumed by that.''
Aaron said it took him a while longer to make that same journey to forgiveness. "I knew that was what we needed to do as Christians, that is what we do," he said.
It doesn't mean the hurt has gone away. The scars remain, they said. There are triggers, like loud noises, that can bring back all the torment.
But without a doubt, the decision to forgive has allowed the move back to become their new start in a new home.
"We can build new memories in this one and we're looking forward to this,'' said Aaron.