News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 26, 2012

Fountain honoring sacrifice by life-saving Santa may return to site of his heroism

TERRE HAUTE — A commemorative drinking fountain once marked the spot. Someday soon, it may return there.

Donors who funded the fountain considered it a fitting tribute to Claude Herbert. It provided cool relief from the heat.

At that place, 17-year-old Cora Harper watched 18-year-old Herbert perform an extraordinary act of heroism and then vanish, forever.

He had just saved her life.

The teenagers were two of 150 employees on duty at the bustling Havens & Geddes department store on the evening of Dec. 19, 1898, on the northeast corner of Wabash Avenue and Fifth Street in downtown Terre Haute. Harper worked as a clerk. Herbert portrayed Santa Claus and had been hired just two days earlier. The role seemed ironic. Herbert, fresh-faced and whiskerless, didn’t resemble Santa but was home from duty in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and needed a job to support his newly widowed mother, Mattie.

On that night, less than a week before Christmas, an incandescent light bulb popped in a display window, setting ablaze Havens & Geddes — the largest department store in Indiana. Lives ended in the inferno. Burned and injured, firefighter John Osterloo died. Henry Nehf, a volunteer firefighter, also perished in an adjacent building. Store clerk Katie Maloney jumped from a second-story ledge, struck her head and died.

More than 30 children had come to the Haven & Geddes basement — adorned as a “winter cabin” scene — to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him their Christmas wishes. When another staffer shouted “Fire!” from the top of the stairs, Herbert — staying in costume and in character — calmed the panicked kids and shuttled them outside to safety, according to accounts in the next morning’s Terre Haute Gazette and a Tribune-Star retrospective published in 2000.

“The stories varied as to how many times he went back in to get the children,” said Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick.

In one poignant account, a hysterical mother screamed that her lost child, Nettie Welch, was still in the store. Herbert, who already had marched other children out, scrambled back inside and found 3-year-old Nettie huddled in Santa’s chair, picked her up and returned the girl to her mother.

On his next-to-last trip inside, a group of clerks followed Herbert and the last few youngsters out. Like the children, the clerks received a gift — of life — from the selfless young Santa.

“I know that some would probably have never been saved if it had not been for his cool head and nerve,” Harper told the Gazette.

That list included Harper.

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