A sad chapter: Victims of deadly house fire still remembered after 3 decades

They say the pain of losing a child doesn't ever go away, it just changes. This coming Wednesday, it will have been 31 years exactly since life changed that way for two local families. It was Sunday, March 13, 1988 when a house fire outside Richv...

The Rust family home is pictured the day after a fire took the lives of Jenny and Robert Rust and their babysitter Annetonette Wallace. Neither the Rusts nor Wallaces had insurance to cover the funerals, and the Rusts were without insurance on their house. (File photo)

They say the pain of losing a child doesn't ever go away, it just changes. This coming Wednesday, it will have been 31 years exactly since life changed that way for two local families. It was Sunday, March 13, 1988 when a house fire outside Richville took the lives of 3-year-old Jenny Rust, 8-year-old Robert Rust and their babysitter, 12-year-old Annetonette Wallace.

"She was a beautiful girl who loved rainbows and yellow roses," said Annetonette's mother, Mary.

More than three decades since her daughter was "swooped up to heaven," Wallace says she relives the events of that night every day.

After leaving a roast for Gene Stoll around 11 p.m., Mary remembers looking over and seeing something burning in the distance.

"Who would be making a bonfire at this time of night?" she thought to herself before realizing that it was the Rust family home that was burning...the home where her daughter had gone to babysit.


After arriving at the scene, Mary stood for hours while each child was recovered from the home one-by-one. After three hours, Annetonette was found lying in the hallway.

"The minister told me I should be proud. She was trying to save Robby and got overcome by the smoke," Mary said.

State Fire Marshall Dick Brolsma said the fire started as a chimney fire from the free standing fireplace in the basement of the Rust house. To make matters worse, the house had no smoke detectors, Brolsma said.

In the March 17, 1988 Enterprise Bulletin, Dent Fire Chief Curt Abbott urged people to go to the hardware store and get a smoke detector.

"That was the worst thing I've ever seen as a fireman. It was one of the saddest things that has ever happened to this community. It was worse, knowing them all," Abbott said following the horrific event.

Richard Rust, who now lives in New York Mills, is the father of little Jenny and Roberts. He says he still doesn't know why the family didn't have smoke detectors, and he still gets emotional recalling his children growing up on the family farm.

"He really enjoyed farm life. He loved horses," he said of Robert. "My daughter hated farm life, she just didn't get along with it. She cried every time we took her to the barn, she was scared of the animals."

Shortly after the fire, the Rusts moved to Montana. Richard and Katherine divorced within a year.


"It was pretty tough for a long time," Rust said of the grieving process.

And for the families of these three children, it remains hard. Wallace remembers the last time she physically saw Annetonette, the day of her wake.

"I told her take good care of them babies in heaven. I forgot to say I loved her," she said. "She loved those kids," she said of the Rust children.

After 31 years, Mary has adjusted to losing Annetonette but still suffers flashbacks, especially around March.

"I know my little girl," she said. "They're all in heaven."

Mary said she'd tell anyone coping with a similar tragedy to talk to others about it.

"Faith in God helps, believing in my faith, and knowing they're in a better place," she said. "Whatever happened was meant to happen."

Mary said for sanity reasons she moved on with her life and relocated to the Twin Cities area, where she still lives today. But memories have a way of following people.


Wallace says she remembers when Annetonette was two-years-old, she fell in love with Elvis Presley, calling him "hunka bunka," she said.

"After Elvis died, she loved John Travolta. We used to call her Olivia Newton John," said Wallace. "She took the stopper from the bathtub and used it as a microphone. She had a great personality."

Becky and Amy Wallace were 9 and 10-years-old when they lost their sister Annetonette.

"It's been horrible. I wish this never would've happened." Amy said, adding that she's lost many childhood memories with her sister, but one that sticks with her is going to Como Park with their grandma Doris.

"You can never forget what happened," Amy said of the grieving process. "She's in heaven with all the rainbows, along with our father, Harley."

Becky said Annetonette was her best friend and always stuck up for her when she was getting picked on.

"If I had a bad dream I would go into her room and crawl into her bed. She was the big sister," Becky said.

"There's always a 'what if?' factor. I always wonder what she would be like as a mom and aunt," Becky said. "I have a feeling she'd be great. As much as you miss people you lose, I sit there and think she's in a much better place than being here."

As the years go by, Becky said the loss doesn't get easier, she's just learned to cope with it.

"When the anniversary or birthday is around the corner you still grieve, and still miss them horribly," she said. "Knowing they're in a better place, and one day you hope to be with them. Knowing dad and her are both together, just brings me sadness and joy knowing they're together."

Related Topics: FIRES
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