by SARAH SQUIRES
"It was just a regular Sunday morning."
That's how "Doctor" Bob Armstrong, well known Winona puppeteer, described his Mankato Avenue home on the morning of December 31, just before a fire that started on the front porch ravaged the structure, just before he and his two children rushed outside in pajamas into the frigid cold, just before his roommate, Travis Mord, had to leap from a second-story window to escape.
Just minutes before the flames consumed the porch and began swiftly licking up the side of the house on the 350 block of Mankato, Armstrong's only warning was the faintest hint of smoke in the air. It wasn't, he explained, even as intense as a burnt pizza. He was in his upstairs bedroom reading a book, his cat Alexander lounging by his side. Bob's son, Felix, 17, was in another upstairs bedroom, and daughter, Simon, 16, was in the living room watching television. "Suddenly, there was this huge rapping at the door," Bob described, "and I heard someone say 'the house is on fire!'"
Bob, who wasn't certain whether Mord was home, grabbed Felix just as fire alarms began to screech, and the two and Simon ran outside. "It all happened so fast," Bob recalled, who immediately ran into the back yard to assess. When he rounded around to the front, he noticed Simon had escaped the cold into an onlooker's vehicle, but he couldn't find Felix. With flames crawling up the sides of the house, Bob raced back inside. He screamed for Felix and turned to the front of the house, where the fire had rapidly progressed. The front door was a "molten ball," he said, but he pushed past it, desperately searching.
Felix was warming up in safety, but when Bob emerged a second time from the home, he realized Mord was indeed inside — still upstairs in his second-floor bedroom. Mord opened the window, and Bob and several onlookers could see flames spreading all around it. What should I do? Mord shouted. "Jump — we'll catch you!" Mord leapt from the burning house, and Bob and the onlookers tried to break his fall; Mord ended up breaking both of his heels in the fall.
After some confusion, all four residents were reunited at the hospital, where Mord was treated for the broken bones and Bob was treated for slight carbon monoxide poisoning. After a confusing few hours — cell phones, laptops, phone numbers, everything was lost in the blaze — Red Cross officials had provided some immediate provisions and all were taken to a hotel for the night.
The fire, which was first reported at 9:55 a.m., wasn't fully extinguished until after 4 p.m. By Tuesday, Bob said he hadn't been ready to return yet, but he knows he lost everything in the blaze.
For Doctor Bob, a prolific musician, puppeteer and artist, losing everything means thousands of songs, decades and decades of artwork and hand-crafted puppets, photos and physical memories. Lots of his work, he explained, isn't necessarily worth very much to other people. "It's not something you can really sell … like a puppet that's been at a thousand shows," he explained. He feels fortunate that much of his work has been recorded and documented, performed for years. "It will be awhile before I can produce anything again," he admitted. "I can make more things; if anything, it's going to shake me up to maybe try some different formats."
Starting from scratch will be hard, but Bob said he's just thankful everyone made it out OK. When asked what his family's immediate needs are, he covers up the phone. "Shoes? We got shoes!" he declared. It's hard to make a list, hard to tell what the next day, or next hour even, will bring, and people have already offered him so much. "I'm lucky I know my friends will help me out."
The cat, Alexander, may have gotten out of the house in the confusion. He's a white and browned striped tabby and limps with a back leg; anyone with information may contact the Winona Area Humane Society.
A fundraiser is planned at Ed's No Name Bar on Friday, January 5, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Silent auction items may be dropped off at Ed’s no later than 4:45 p.m. on January 5. Donations may also be made at gofundme.com/robert-armstrongs-house-fire. Donations for Mord may be made at gofundme.com/9kexx-travis-mord. Checks may also be written to Bob Armstrong or Travis Mord and dropped off at the Winona Post office, 64 East Second Street, Winona.