A day after an apparent gas explosion and partial building collapse killed two longtime employees of Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, students and staff are remembering Ruth Berg and John Carlson as kind, warm fixtures of a tight-knit community.
The disaster Wednesday came mid-morning, as contractors were working on the building and workers suddenly began to warn of a gas leak. The exact circumstances of the deadly explosion are under investigation.
After the blast and building collapse, rescue workers saved several people on the roof. The students attending summer school were in a different part of the building, but two staff members were missing. Crews searched through precarious rubble for hours in the hope they might find survivors.
Instead, they found the bodies of Berg and Carlson.
Carlson, whose age has been reported as 81 and 82, was a grandfather figure to students at the private Christian school for 14 years. He’d attended himself — graduating in 1953, according to the academy — and sent his kids there. “After retiring from his first career he came back to work at the school,” the academy says, calling him “Minnehaha’s biggest cheerleader.”
The custodian was famous for handing out Dilly Bars, the Dairy Queen ice cream treat, to students and visitors in the hallways.
Last year, Minnehaha Academy’s student newspaper ran a profile of Carlson. They described him pulling a large trash can, “his eyes bright with kindness”:
“Making his way into the Campus Room, the man pulls a small plastic package from under his arm and holds it towards a student whose books are open on a table.
” ‘Here’s a Dilly bar,’ said custodian John Carlson. ‘Keep going. Do a good job. Get good grades. Have a Dilly bar.’ …
” ‘I’m kind of an outgoing person and if I see students standing around I like to say “hello,” ‘ he said. ‘To do the job is important. I’ve got to put in a good day’s work, and I try to do that. But, I also enjoy conversing with the students.’ ”
Carlson told the student reporter he wanted to teach students “friendliness and a Christian attitude,” emphasizing “the importance that education has, but also to lead a good life.”
“He was super sweet and super friendly to everyone,” student Roddy Macdonald told the Fox 9 local news station. “He loved being here.”
“He loved the school, the people, and the kids — you could just tell,” said a woman on Facebook, who described meeting Carlson while visiting the school as a prospective parent. Carlson was out of Dilly Bars that day, and brought them books as a present instead.
Carlson wasn’t supposed to start his shift until Wednesday afternoon, after the explosion, Minnesota Public Radio reports. But he had a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon, so he started early.
Ruth Berg, a receptionist at the school, had worked there for 17 years. “She welcomed everyone with a smile and was always willing to go the extra mile to help our students, families, and staff,” the school said.
Berg was engaged to be married, and planning a wedding for the fall, Minnesota Public Radio reported Thursday:
“Berg was supposed to have been fitted for her wedding dress today.
“Mark Burrington, her fiance, said their September wedding invitations arrived just a day before the blast. Burrington said he talked to her on the phone about having lunch, then heard the blast at the school just down the street from his home.
“He ran into the damaged building to search for her.
” ‘The first hallway I hit, there was a lot of like debris and stuff, and it literally looked like a bomb went off,’ he recalled. “You turn the corner to go down to the office where she sits … As soon as I turned the corner, you could see the daylight, and I knew, you know, there’s something wrong.’ ”