Friends plant tree for house fire victims

The tree’s three interwoven trunks symbolize the three students killed.

Hank Long

Rich Heiden hid tears behind his sunglasses as he tied a yellow ribbon Thursday to a branch of the freshly planted tree in Van Cleve Park, in memory of his son Brian Heiden and his fellow University students Amanda Speckien and Elizabeth Wencl.

The students died in a Dinkytown house fire in September.

Rich Heiden, along with more than 50 relatives, close friends and community members, attended the ceremony.

“I wish it didn’t happen the way it happened,” Heiden said. “But I think it’s pulling the community together and if it does some good that way, at least something comes out of this.”

Several representatives from the University, neighborhood associations and the city of Minneapolis spoke about the spirit and hope the memorial brings to the community.

“Today’s event really grew out of a very simple idea,” said Joan Menken, a member of the Southeast Como Improvement Association who helped to get the memorial in the park, which is located along 15th Avenue Southeast and one block from the house where the students died.

“We just plant a tree in remembrance. We are here to remember and recognize the value of all of those that live in our community,” she said.

University President Bob Bruininks told the crowd it was fitting to place the memorial in the community on Earth Day and Beautiful “U” Day.

Bruininks said he did not know Heiden, Speckien and Wencl personally, but had come to learn about them through their friends and family in the months following their death.

“They knew the true art of friendship,” Bruininks said. “They had a tendency to draw people to them and were great friends.”

University sophomore Fikre Mengistu, a former roommate of Heiden, Speckien and Wencl, said it was a beautiful thing to see all the people who came to the ceremony.

Mengistu said he will continue to visit the memorial.

“I jog often so I will divert my route now, to come this way,” he said.

University grounds superintendent Les Potts, who planted the tree, said he chose the river birch because it has three trunks stem out from one tree, which represents each of the students.

Kendre Turonie, University student and community relations coordinator, said the

ceremony was a great event to honor the students’ lives and bring students together with their neighbors to do something positive.

“I couldn’t be prouder of how the students, the neighborhood and the city worked together on this project,” she said.

A plaque will be placed next to the river birch tree at a later date. The plaque will read: “This tree was planted in memory of our neighbors and friends on April 22, 2004 – in the spirit of community through hope, friendship and respect.”