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Family reflects on fire that destroyed their home

Family shares story of recovering from fire that destroyed home

Dec. 12, 2012

The Van Wagner family home on Elm Street is cold and dark. There are no family photos hanging on the walls. All that remains is the gutted interior, scraps of the home scattered about, a kitchen sink propped against the wall. The silent remains sit waiting for help.

You can hear Amy Van Wagner upstairs; her distant voice says, "Well, in our dreams we'd like to have … " and she discusses renovations with Rob Dams of National Restoration Inc.

As a campfire smell consumed one's senses standing in the home, one thing was certain. Van Wagner had never dreamed she'd be standing in a shell of her home on a cold winter day having this conversation.

A crash and then flames

Just days earlier, Amy Van Wagner was curled up on her living room couch. It was cold day out Nov. 8, and she was warming up by the fire. She heard a crash outside, but didn't think much of it. Maybe it was an animal rustling around or something falling from the wind. The sound was actually a piece of her chimney falling to the ground after it caught fire.

"My guardian angel was working that day because I had no intention of getting up off that couch," she said. "(But) if didn't get off the couch to see what the noise was I don't think my husband would be here (today)."

There were no warning signs a fire was spreading in her house. Her husband, Stan, was asleep upstairs before his 2 a.m. shift at work. While he was deep asleep, the fire and thick smoke was spreading quickly in the attic above their bedroom.

The chimney chase did its job moving the fire up and out, but the flames also broke through the roof of the house spreading quickly and consuming stored Christmas and Halloween decorations.

"When I went outside, I saw 6-foot flames," Amy recalled. She jumped into action getting pets and children out. Then she ran back in and rushed upstairs to wake Stan. "I remember that I pushed him so hard he flew to the other side of the bed," she said recalling the moment of adrenaline. Amy said within seconds a half-dozen city squads were outside. One officer grabbed a water hose, others jumped into action to evacuate and help.

The fire department was on its way shortly thereafter. Amy said she remembers her children running down the street to nearby Station No. 1, "because the fire crews weren't coming fast enough.

"We laugh about it today. I ask them 'what were you going to do?' But I know they were just trying to help in that moment, so we laugh. We have to laugh about a few things today," Amy said.

Amy also remembers another lifeline that was there to help that day, the city dispatcher who answered her 911 call. "She calmed me a lot. She was a lifeline," said Amy.

More than just firefighters

And then there was the moment that didn't need words, Amy said.

Her daughter Chevelle's beloved cat was missing, and it was uncertain whether it made it out of the house. But a fireman found the cat and brought it to Chevelle, an true gift for the 16-year-old standing in front of her house and watching as her life was thrown into chaos.

"If I had a camera that day to record that moment … He found and gave my daughter her cat back," Amy said.

The thoughtfulness of the Fire Department crews that night was truly remarkable, Amy said. While the firefighters were working to extinguish the fire, they ran inside and tried to save things - especially things that may not be replaceable. "They threw a tarp over our TV, our bed and they tried to grab photos," said Amy.

Dams said he's worked with hundreds of home fire victims and has only seen such care one other time. "This is one-of-a-kind the way they tried to save stuff," he said.

City of Oconomowoc Deputy Fire Chief Glenn Leidel said for him and his department, it's simply part of the job.

"In general, people in public safety have a strong desire to help others. We're type A to a certain point, but in a way, putting out the fire is least important," Leidel said.

Gone in a flash

The entire event that night was complete in a few short hours. From the moment the fire was discovered to when firemen left was from around 7 to 10 p.m.; something Amy said she thought was pretty remarkable. And in just a few short hours, the Van Wagner family's entire world was turned upside down.

The firemen were able to contain the fire so the home was not a total loss, but smoke and water damage completely destroyed the interior and all their belongings.

"Imagine walking out your front door and not being able to go back to retrieve anything. What you've got on and in your hands, that's it," Amy said trying to paint a picture of what it feels like to lose your material life.

What's next for the Van Wagner family? See next week's story as we follow the family through their recovery from tragedy.

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Joe Hite: 7 p.m. May 27, Okauchee Lake Yacht Club, W340 N6338 Breezy Point Road, Oconomowoc. 7 to 11 p.m. Joe Hite will perform, and all proceeds will benefit the Okauchee Fireworks Fund. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Minimum $10 per person.

Burgundy Ties Plays: 8 p.m. May 28, Bucky’s Lakeside Pub and Grill, 50n 35016w Wisconsin Ave, Okauchee. The combination of their eclectic sound and live performance makes Burgundy Ties stand out as an original and inspired Milwaukee band. Visit www.burgundytiesband.com. Free.

Duck/Homemade Boat Race: 10 a.m. May 28, Nixon Park, 339 Maple Ave., Hartland. Races start at 11 a.m. There will be food for sale as well as other family-friendly activities. Entry fee per race is $5 and $1 to purchase a duck. All proceeds go to saving the swifts and to the Ice Age Trail. For rules and information, visit www.savetheswifts.com.

Rummage Sale: 9 a.m. May 26-27; 8 a.m. May 28, Rummage Sale, N41W29213 Prairie Wind Circle South, Pewaukee. Volunteers and donations needed. We will supply tax donation forms to donors. Anything not sold will be donated to Goodwill and Lake Country Caring.

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