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Remembering the life lost in the flames

As investigation continues, Gretel Heinrichs recalls late husband
By: Jenifer Gee, Gold Country News Service
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The cause of the house fire that took the life of a 75-year-old Penryn man remained under investigation Monday. Early Sunday morning, the blaze consumed Helmut and Gretel Heinrichs’ 4,000-square-foot home on Prairie Court off of Gold Rush and Butler in Penryn. On Monday, Gretel Heinrichs said she is grateful for help from the community as she copes with the loss of her husband of 37 years. “I want to thank all my friends and all my wonderful neighbors for being such a great help to me at this time,” Gretel Heinrichs said. At about 1:36 a.m. fire crews were dispatched to the home. When they arrived, they found the two-story structure “fully involved,” according to Mitch Higgins, Penryn Fire District chief. Higgins said some vegetation surrounding the home, including a crop of cypress trees next to the house, was also on fire. It took two engines from Penryn, one from Loomis, one engine and one water tender from South Placer, one engine from Auburn City, one engine from Newcastle fire departments and three firetanks from Cal Fire to extinguish the blaze. Higgins said it took about an hour to get the fire under control. Crews had to wait for additional water tenders, including another one from Placer County fire, to arrive to have enough liquid to douse the flames. The fire was fully extinguished around 3:30 a.m., Higgins said. A neighbor’s house within about 50 yards of the Heinrich’s house was not threatened during the incident. While the cause remains under investigation, Higgins said it does not appear as though arson was involved. Higgins said the home was released back to Gretel Heinrichs Monday morning. Jazz lover and wife built home over four years Gretel Heinrichs said she was still in shock Monday after losing her husband and the home they had spent four years building together. The Heinrichs first bought the property in 1972, shortly after they got married in June at the Chapel of the Bells in Reno and with only a $100 to their name. “There were only three homes in this area and it was all orchards and high weeds,” Gretel Heinrichs said. “But we liked the property so much because it was on a hill and in the evening you could see the lights in Sacramento.” During the four-year time period it took to build their home, Gretel and Helmut worked in Sacramento and drove up during the evenings and weekends to chip away at their house. Looking back, Gretel Heinrichs laughs at the highs and lows of constructing a home. “At times it was a big challenge because neither one of us had ever built a home,” Gretel Heinrichs said. “Any marriage that survives building a house can survive anything.” The Heinrichs hosted multiple parties at their sprawling home once construction was complete. One fete brought more than 600 guests to their home for a backyard jazz concert. The couple constructed a stage and bar for the event. “He was a lover of jazz and was very much involved with the Sacramento Jazz jubilee,” Gretel Heinrichs said. Helmut Heinrichs also played the drums and bass guitar. From time to time the popular jazz band Alltrila would call him to sub in for their drummer. Helmut Heinrichs also had a love of cars and would often drive his Porsche and Rolls Royce around, Gretel Heinrichs said. Gretel Heinrichs said her husband was a hard worker, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1956 because “he wanted a better life.” He started out as an auto mechanic and service manager in New Jersey. In 1970 he met Gretel. Later the two packed up all of their possessions, including two cars, on a truck trailer and drove across country together to California. “We moved cross country from New Jersey to Sacramento, California with a few stops in between when the truck broke down,” Gretel Heinrichs said, laughing softly at the memory. “We had no money and we were totally broke.” After the smoke alarm jarred Gretel Heinrichs awake early Sunday, she and one of her dogs escaped out the sliding glass door of the master bedroom she was sleeping in. Helmut Heinrichs was in another bedroom. He and the couple’s second dog were found together in that room. Gretel Heinrichs’ nephew, the only family she has in the area, is currently taking care of her. She said neighbors have given her clothes and Raley’s donated a $25 voucher to help provide her some food. She said no memorial service will be held for her husband, per his wishes. “I’ll remember his love of music and his love for cars,” Gretel Heinrichs said.