Late in the morning of March 7, 2003, the LaCrosse Fire Department was dispatched to a house fire on State Street. To made matters worse, it was also reported that small children were trapped inside their burning home. Assistant Mechanic Gary Behrens and Lieutenant William Patza were faced with a terrible situation. Fire and smoke had filled the house and signs of flashover were very evident, but no one had found the missing girls yet. A ladder was placed to a low roof near the second floor window and these two firefighters climbed in to search for the young girls. What they found first was complete darkness and oppressive heat. Lieutenant Patza started searching to his left and soon came across an unconscious little girl. After bringing her to the window and placing her in the care of other firefighters, Lieutenant Patza went back to where he had left off and started searching again. After a few moments he found the second child and, as before, brought her to the window where her care was placed in the hands of other members of the team. Finally, Lieutenant Patza and Firefighter Behrens were able to leave the building themselves and retreat to the safety of the clear outside air. Once outside, they were assigned to go to the first floor and do a search there. Meanwhile, CPR was being administered to both of the little girls as they were rushed to the hospital. Sadly, neither of the young girls were able to survive their ordeal.
In a letter from the La Crosse Police Chief Edward Kondracki to Fire Chief Peter Stinson, he states, “Tell your firefighters that we are measured sometimes by how we perform when things are at their worst. It is easy for me to say that for La Crosse Firefighters, who were at the scene on March 7 were given the worst possible scenario. From what I saw your people were at their best! All that could be humanly done was done. I shall not forget what I saw that day…”