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Grandmother saves two of three children from fire

Despite the heroic efforts of a 52-year-old grandmother, a 3-year-old twin girl died in a Duluth Township fire Tuesday night.

Sarah Johnson was dead at the scene of the fire, officials said. Her grandmother, Catherine Solem, was hospitalized with smoke inhalation and a leg injury after jumping out of a window.

The other 3-year old twin, Heidi Johnson, and her 6-year-old brother, Alex Johnson, also were treated for smoke inhalation after being rescued by their grandmother.

The fire at 1557 West Knife River Road was reported by a passerby at 10:39 p.m.

The grandmother was house-sitting and babysitting the children while their parents were attending a wedding in Alaska, said St. Louis County Undersheriff Dave Phillips.

Solem and the children were in bed when the fire broke out. Phillips said reports indicated that the woman woke up to an orange glow outside her bedroom window. She ran to the children's bedroom and pushed out a window. She grabbed the boy from a bunk bed, lowered him out the window and went back for the girls. She got one girl out of the home, but the smoke was so thick that she was overcome and couldn't find the second girl, Phillips said. The grandmother escaped through the window.

"For what she was facing, to be on an upper level of a structure while flames were destroying the house, the effort she made in trying to save all those children is beyond imagination,'' Phillips said. "Her having the mindset to push out that window and literally grab a child off the top bunk and find the other child so quickly indeed saved their lives.''

Phillips said the cause of the fire has not yet been determined. At this point there is nothing suspicious to indicate foul play, he said. A sheriff's investigator and state fire marshal are investigating.

A family dog also died in the fire.

"The family is definitely going to need a lot of prayer and support over the coming weeks and months,'' Phillips said. "It must be very devastating for them all.''

The Clifton Township Volunteer Fire Department responded to the fire with assistance from the Lakewood, Normanna and Two Harbors volunteer fire departments. The house was reduced to rubble.

"By the time we got there it was fully involved in flame,'' said Clifton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robert Engelson. "The grandmother and two of the children were out. We were told that there was one child still inside, but at that point there was too much flame for us to get inside. We got the fire knocked down and we located the victim and waited for the medical examiner and fire investigators.''

A benefit fund has been set up for the family. Send contributions to "The Johnson Family Memorial Benefit Fund,'' C/O North Shore Bank of Commerce, 17 E. Calvary Road, Duluth, MN 55803.

North Shore Community School, where Alex starts first grade next week, is also accepting donations for the family.

The family's belongings were destroyed in the fire. School director Sue Rose said boys' clothing, sizes 8-10, and girls' clothing, sizes 3-4 toddler, as well as toys, gifts and cash are being accepted at the school, 5926 Ryan Road, Duluth, MN 55804.