"They were volunteers serving their community. This isn't the way they made their living, but they made the ultimate sacrifice."
Article credit to Mark Nicklawske, Regional Editor for White Bear Press
Four firefighters plowed a rig through a snowstorm - two men hanging on the back bumper - to help battle a blaze in downtown Stillwater on Jan. 22, 1982.
Two of the firefighters would not return home that night.
Raeburn and Hays, both family men in their 40s, were veterans of the Mahtomedi Fire Department. Raeburn grew up in Mahtomedi, served in the U.S. Navy and was a chef at the Piccadilly restaurant; Hays worked on Mississippi River tugboats and recently secured his captains' license.
Raeburn, Hays and two other firefighters were the only men who made it fast enough to the Mahtomedi Fire Station that evening to board a rig to Stillwater. Peloquin and many others on the department were stuck or delayed by a raging snow storm. Fire departments from Lake Elmo and Bayport also assisted Stillwater in battling a blaze at Brine's meat market, a historic brick building on the downtown Main Street. The fire spread to a neighboring clothing store and was threatening the whole downtown area.
Raeburn, Hays and a Stillwater firefighter climbed on the clothing store roof in an attempt to ventilate the building from accumulating smoke and gases. The roof, already loaded with heating and air-conditioning units, was piled high with snow and weakened by unseen fire.
Former Mahtomedi Fire Chief Jim Peloquin said the roof collapsed and the building burst into flames.
The Stillwater firefighter survived the collapse and was rescued more than an hour later. Hays and Raeburn died inside the building.
The firefighters are two of the 197 [As of date article was published] Minnesota firefighters to lose their lives in the line of duty, according to the Minnesota Fallen Firefighters Memorial Association.
Through community support the Mahtomedi Fire Department carried on. The tight-knit group of just over two dozen firefighters met at the Piccadilly in the wake of the tragedy.
"It was a healing moment for everyone," said Peloquin. "Nobody really said, 'Oh boy, I'm going to quit.' Everyone got together and said 'Let's make the best of a bad situation.' And that's what we did."
Peloquin continued as chief for another 12 years and the department grew bigger and stronger.
"They were volunteers serving their community. This isn't the way they made their living," said Peloquin. "But they made the ultimate sacrifice."