News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 9, 2012

HISTORICAL TREASURE: The day Santa saved lives

Dr. Dipa Sarkar
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — More than a century later, residents remember the heroics of an 18-year Spanish American War veteran named Claude L. Herbert. With a glance back at his widowed mother, he headed off the afternoon of Dec. 19, 1898, for his temporary job at Terre Haute’s newest department store — Havens and Geddes Store — at the junction of Fifth Street and Wabash Avenue. That afternoon, he was to play Santa Claus for children to climb on his lap and whisper their wishes.

Suddenly there were screams and shouts of “fire.” A window dresser heard a “pop” sound and turning back, found an incandescent bulb had exploded and set the soft white cotton ablaze. The fire spread all over the store. Herbert began to help people from his basement location to other floors of the building. He went back to the burning building and helped even more people. At the age of 18, he died in the flames. The building was totally destroyed, resulting in millions of dollars in damages, and several lives were lost.

A monument was placed on the site to commemorate Claude Herbert’s bravery. That monument was later moved and now stands on the lawn between the Vigo County Courthouse and City Hall.

That night the newspaper wrote: “The heavens became illuminated.” Even more than a century later, Claude Herbert is still remembered, not just as a young Santa Claus, but an angel of God.