When this Columbus couple hosts family and friends for their Thanksgiving meal in their temporary home, seated around their donated tables and chairs will be two special guests: the men who rescued them from the fire that destroyed their house last month.
And among the reasons Susan and Gerry Wieczorek and their heroes, Tom Mullen and Bruce Machado, will be especially thankful this Thanksgiving are the previously unrelated events that combined to turn devastation into celebration. All of which has provided renewed appreciation for good neighbors and cherished life.
Thanksgiving was âjust words before,â Susan said. âItâs the experience now.â
Call them coincidences or divine intervention, but the folks involved in this story still marvel at the circumstances that converged as the night of Oct. 28 turned into the morning of Oct. 29 at their Mooreâs Forest cul-de-sac on Gray Shoals Drive.
Gerry and Susan, both 65, had been living in that 40-year-old house for 34 years. They raised three children there. They had just paid off their mortgage in May.
Susan retired in June as a nurse practitioner at Columbus Medical Associates for internist Dr. Howard Willis. Gerry is retired from managing the local office of Alabama Electric, a construction company.
In July, Gerry was driving to a Knights of Columbus meeting in Macon. A 92-year-old woman failed to stop as she crossed the four-lane highway in front of him. He T-boned her.
âI should have died right there,â said Gerry, who was saved by his seat belt and airbag.
The woman also wasnât injured.
Gerry surviving that crash allowed him to be home with Susan the night of their fire â so did his inexplicable decision to cut short his hunting trip. They also are grateful for who wasnât but could have been in their house that night, a Sunday.
Their grandchildren, an 18-year-old and a 6-year-old, spent Saturday night in the Wieczoreksâ home. They slept in the two spare bedrooms, where the Wieczoreksâ sons, Brian and Clay, and daughter Ashley used to sleep. Those bedrooms are closest to the carport. Thatâs where the fire started the next night.
In hindsight, Susan sure is glad her grandchildren declined her invitation to extend their stay.
âGod has us in His hands,â she said.
Sunday evening, Gerry was at their cabin in Waverly Hall, planning to sleep there so he could hunt Monday morning. For a reason he still doesnât know, he changed his mind and returned home.
âSomething just told me,â he said.
He arrived home around 6:30 p.m., and both were asleep by 11:15 p.m.
Gerry likes to sleep with their ceiling fan plus a portable fan on and the cat off the bed. In fact, he would close the door to keep the cat out of their bedroom.
But when Gerry isnât home, Susan likes to keep the fans off, the cat on the bed and the bedroom door open.
So if Gerry hadnât come home early from his hunting trip, none of those factors would have been in place. And all of them seemed to help save them from the fire.
Poncho, their 6-year-old rescue cat with a prehensile thumb on both front paws, didnât survive the fire â but helped Gerry and Susan survive it.
âPoncho, who gave his life, is the reason that door was closed,â Gerry said.
When the fire knocked out the power in their house, the fans cut off. The lack of the breeze and the lack of the white noise woke up Gerry a little before midnight.
And then Gerry sitting up in bed woke up Susan.
âI think I smell smoke,â Susan said.
âSo do I,â Gerry said.
Gerry went to the bedroom door. It was closed only because he wanted to keep the cat out of their bed.
âThe firefighters say that saved our lives,â Gerry said.
He touched the door. It wasnât hot, so he opened it.
A blast of heat and smoke choked him. He immediately closed the door.
âThe house is on fire,â Gerry told Susan. âWe cannot go down those stairs.â
The roar of the fire was so loud, they couldnât hear their four smoke alarms going off. With the power out around midnight, it was pitch-black in their bedroom.
The smoke started seeping into their bedroom, so Susan scampered into the adjacent bathroom.
âI was going to get in the tub and cover myself with water,â she said.
Gerry had a different idea.
In the darkness, Gerry fumbled with the drapes and blinds as he opened their bedroom window, gathered pillows to cushion the pending two-story fall and convinced Susan to come out of the bathroom and join him.
Susan didnât want to jump, so Gerry was fixing to push her â but thatâs when the first of their heroes appeared at their front door and yelled, âIs anybody home?â
Gerry: âYes, Tom, weâre on the second floor! Weâre trapped!â
Bruce and Tom are 53. Tom, a retired Air Force technical sergeant with 21 years of military service (partly in the Navy and Army as well), is a refrigeration technician at the Walmart distribution center in Opelika. Bruce, a retired Army command sergeant major with 31 years of military service, is head of the tool rental department at Home Depot in Columbus.
Two houses away and across the street from the Wieczoreks, the Mullen familyâs dog, Charlie, woke up Tom with an alarming bark the night of the fire, a little before midnight.
âDogs have different barks,â Tom said. âThey have the âIâm bored and I hear another dog barking, so Iâm just going to make noise.â Then they have the âIâm either scared or very angry.â The dogâs bark was No. 2. Something was wrong.â
Charlie is a rescue dog. He sleeps in the kitchen of their one-story home.
âWe actually found him a year ago at St. Thomas Episcopal Church,â said Tomâs wife, Michelle.
âThe rescue dog is the hero,â Tom said. âThe rescue dog started the rescue.â
Tom grabbed his pistol and a flashlight. He saw a huge glow outside.
âI thought maybe the front of our house was on fire,â he said.
After he opened his front door, Tom heard a roar.
âIt sounded like a gigantic gas furnace,â said Tom, who was a firefighter for two years in the Navy but fought only one fire.
He ran back to the bedroom, woke up Michelle and hollered for her to call 911. Their 19-year-old son, Hunter, beat her to it, so Michelle called their other emergency contact: next-door neighbor Bruce.
Neighbors for 14 years, Bruce and Tom are used to helping each other, working together on projects around their houses. When either of them was deployed, they looked after the otherâs family.
âWhether they like it or not,â Tom cracked, âthey are extended family.â
But this was the first emergency they responded to together.
âThere are certain people you learn you can count on,â Tom explained. âI just instinctively knew he would respond well under pressure.â
Bruce answered Michelleâs call right away.
âI leave my phone on at night,â Bruce said. âIâve got kids. If they call, I want to be able to answer.â
She told him there was a fire across the street but didnât know which house.
âI looked out the window,â Bruce said, âand I saw the blaze.â
Meanwhile, Tom already was across the street at the Wieczoreksâ house. He found a spot near the front door where the heat wasnât as intense and started kicking and yelling.
After hearing Gerry shout that they were trapped upstairs in their bedroom, Tom shouted up to them, âStay there! We will get you out!â
Tom sprinted back to his house to get his ladder.
Bruce overheard Tom holler at Michelle that he needed a ladder. Both men ended up getting their own, but Bruce dropped his ladder on his front yard when he saw Tom already had a ladder.
With slippers still on their feet, they ran toward the fire.
âThe moment I put the ladder against their window,â Tom said, âBruce was right there.â
Flames engulfed the left side of the house. The right side, containing the master bedroom, was filling with smoke.
They looked up â and they saw Susan halfway out the window.
Tomâs initial arrival at their house gave Gerry and Susan a good reason not to jump out of their window. His declaration that he was going to get his ladder gave them a good reason for hope. But they were running out of both.
While they waited for the ladder, Susan and Gerry had to get on the floor to breathe because black smoke was filling their bedroom. They also took turns sticking their head out the window.
The next thing they knew, there was Tom again â this time with Bruce â sprinting up their driveway hill and leaning that promised ladder against their burning house.
The ladder was about 3 feet short of the window, so Tom locked in the base, and Bruce went up to guide Susan.
âI was just trying to stabilize Susan so she doesnât fall down,â Bruce said. âShe was hesitant to get on the ladder. But as soon as she got both feet on the ladder, we came right down.â
Then the heroes switched places. Bruce held the ladder, and Tom went up to guide Gerry, whose robe was caught on something amid the billowing smoke.
Bruce and Tom kept reassuring the couple, Gerry recalled, âWe got you. We got you. Come on down. Come on down. Weâre going to help. Weâre going to get you out.â
Gerry figures they had less than a minute left before the smoke would have overwhelmed them.
âWe were rescued just in time,â he said.
Susan admitted, âMaybe there wasnât enough oxygen in my brain at that point, but I wasnât really clear on what was going on. I was like in a dream world, like I was going to wake up and this was all going to be over.â
When she reached the street, turned around and saw the flames shooting above their towering treetops, Susan felt âshock and numbness,â she said.
As neighbors comforted the couple at the end of the cul-de-sac and waited for the firefighters to arrive, Susan told Michelle their two dogs still were in the house. They were in kennels in the living room.
Michelle held Susan to keep her from running back to the house. Michelle yelled to Tom, âThereâs dogs in there!â
Gerry laughs about it now as he recalled Tom, ever polite, asked him for permission to break the living-room window to try to save the dogs.
Spooky is a lab mix, and Paxton PawPaw is mostly a beagle. Both are 2-year-old rescue dogs.
Tom, relying on his firefighting training, knew that if he broke the window to get the dogs out, the rush of air would feed the fire. But the fire was so intense around the doors, this was the only way to reach the dogs.
They tried breaking the window with the end of the ladder. That didnât work. Hunter handed Bruce a rock. That worked.
Despite the pleas from Susan, however, Tom immediately aborted the rescue.
âThe oxygen got pulled into that fire so fast,â he said, âit felt like a vortex. All you could see was dark smoke swirling around in there. You could feel the heat. We had to back away.â
Having to tell Susan and Gerry they couldnât get the dogs, Tom said, âIt felt like I had failed them.â
All this happened that night in only 6 minutes. The 911 call came in at 11:55 p.m., and the first firefighters arrived on the scene at 12:01 a.m., according to the Columbus Fire Department report.
âIt seemed like forever,â Michelle said.
Tom told one of the firefighters that the people in the home escaped but two dogs were trapped. He didnât know at the time that the Wieczoreks also had a cat.
Capt. Ashley Thompson and Lt. Gerrie Singletary rescued the dogs.
The Wieczoreks gushed about those responders.
âTo me,â Gerry said, âthatâs above and beyond the call of duty, to risk your own life to save someoneâs pets.â
Susan added, âAmazing. I cannot thank them enough for thinking that much of what meant something to us.â
As the firefighters carried out the limp dogs, Gerry said, âI thought they were dead.â
But paramedics Kevin Pate and Bryant Register resuscitated them.
A police officer on the scene called a veterinarian, Kim Kees of Rivertown Veterinary Emergency, which provides after-hours care. Bruce and his wife, Nancy, volunteered to take the dogs to the vet.
âThe dogs were conscious, but they were shaking,â Bruce said. âThey were in shock, it looked like. One of the dogâs eyes was seeping.â
Later that day, Bruce took the dogs for further treatment to the Double Churches Animal Clinic. When the vet there determined the dogs needed intensive care, Tom took the dogs to the Auburn University Veterinary Clinic.
Susan, who graduated from the University of Alabama, graciously accepted the Auburn sweatshirt she was given at the clinic.
âI have to give up all my Auburn jokes now,â she said.
They not only took good care of her dogs, she said, but they also âgreatly reduced the bill.â
Both dogs had burned corneas and need eye drops several times a day, but their vision is good. Spooky recovered well. Pax stayed in an oxygen cage for a week and still has some corneal haze and coughs and wheezes, Susan said, âbut heâs getting better every day.â
Columbus Fire Marshal Rickey Shores described the balance between life and death during a fire.
âYou donât have minutes; you have seconds,â Shores said. âItâs not the fire but the smoke that gets you. Usually, by the time the fire department gets there, most people succumb to the smoke. So itâs highly likely they are alive today because of those two gentlemen. Those guys saved their lives. Thereâs no doubt.â
Itâs clear the military experience Tom and Bruce have, including Tomâs firefighting skills, helped them respond appropriately, Shores said.
âWhen you have that kind of training, especially leadership positions, you tend to recognize impending peril more quickly than the average citizen,â Shore said. âVery few people want to get involved in something theyâre not familiar with. Situational awareness comes into play. It takes a lot, and those guys are veterans. Theyâve been around a while. They just have that mentality, that sense to know âIf I donât take action, nobody else will,â and weâre thankful they did.â
In 38 years with the Columbus Fire Department, said Station 8 Battalion Chief Bobby Dutton, he has responded to only one other house fire in which a neighborâs rescue attempt was successful.
âIf that couple had jumped out that window and onto pillows, they would have been severely injured,â Dutton said. âWhen you have neighbors like that, it actually saves lives.â
Dutton praised Gerry for closing their bedroom door.
âHad he not done that,â the battalion chief said, âthe smoke probably would have killed them.â
He also lauded the 19 firefighters who were on the scene. Only one firefighter (ankle) was injured, he said.
âAll my crews did an exceptional job,â Dutton said. âThe neighbors also were great. You could tell thatâs a tight community. They take care of each other.â
The firefighters had the fire under control within 30 minutes, but nearly all of the Wieczoreksâ possessions were destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
Around 3:30 a.m., before the last of the firefighters left the scene, one of them asked Susan whether there was an item in the house she particularly wanted them to retrieve.
âYes, sir,â Susan replied.
In the closet of her dressing room, on the right side, they should be able to find a little white pouch, she said.
That 40-year-old pouch contains the tangible memories of her deceased daughter, Jennifer Leigh, given to the Wieczoreks by Striffler-Hamby Mortuary.
Jennifer was 3 hours old when she died in Anniston (Ala.) Memorial Hospital. She suffocated from a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a condition now more easily treated.
âTwo firefighters went back in that house and found it for me,â Susan said, shaking her head in awe.
Other items theyâve recovered since that night range from silly to serious, including a 1980 âAll About Columbusâ board game, an iPad, a 4-foot crucifix and a 2006 love letter from Gerry to Susan marking their 31st wedding anniversary:
âEach day you show me how love rejoices in the right, how to glorify the Lord by bringing Him deeper into our marriage,â he wrote. â. . . I thank God daily for allowing me to spend my life as your husband.â
Twelve years later, he was prepared to push her out of their two-story bedroom window to save her life.
âWe will be beginning again,â Susan said. âItâs kind of like old people being newlyweds again.â
For the past 11 years, Gerry and Susan have been running the Our Lady of Rose Hill Ministries, serving homeless, impoverished and migrants.
Now, they receive charity.
âSo many times, weâve given out something simple, a coat, a blanket or toys, and they would go on and on with thank-yous, often give us a hug, sometimes become teary-eyed,â Gerry said. âI always thought that was overkill, because Iâm giving such a simple item. But then you go through a tragedy like this, and you lose everything â your home, your possessions, your vehicles â you literally have whateverâs on your back.â
The night of the fire, Tom brought Gerry clothes for him to wear.
âThat meant the world to me, simply because I could put on something other than pajama bottoms and a bathrobe,â Gerry said. âSo many people, in addition to Tom, have stepped forward to bring us basic necessities that people need just to operate on a daily basis. And that is so humbling. So I understand now where that humility and that thankfulness come from.â
As she watched the firefighters battle the blaze, Susan struggled to accept the fate of their home. She asked Gerry, âDid you lock the door?â
He reminded her, âWe donât have a door anymore.â
While the firefighters battled the blaze, Susan finally stopped asking Gerry whether he unplugged their coffeemaker. Then she felt a âdeveloping awareness of what a close call it was,â she said, âand the tremendous bravery, compassion and concern. There is such a solidarity between us neighbors in Mooreâs Forest. We look out for each other.â
Gerry also described the scene as surreal and comforting at the same time.
âYouâre there with all those lights flashing in your face and youâre watching the fire, but eight of the 10 families in our circle (on the cul-de-sac) came out to check on us,â he said.
This wasnât âthoughts and prayersâ on Facebook; this was the face-to-face kind of support, giving them water, blankets, clothes and chairs as they gathered on the cul-de-sac.
âThere was so much,â Gerry said, âjust love and compassion that was flowing in those moments.â
Thinking about the selfless way Tom and Bruce responded, Susan said, âThey saved our lives. There is no doubt about it.â
Gerry added, âIâm very thankful they were there for us. . . . In the face of real danger, with 1,800-degree flames, they didnât blink. They were very courageous.â
Susan put their rescue in greater perspective, a commentary on modern life.
âYou hear so much today that people donât know their neighbors anymore,â she said. âWe live in such a virtual society. You can go to school without interacting with anyone. You can order your groceries online and just have them delivered. We were absolutely embraced by our neighbors in Mooreâs Forest.â
While she was in Cracker Barrel, looking for a cookbook to start replacing her collection lost in the fire, Susan told a fellow customer about the fire, and the woman pressed $6 into her hand.
âThe hug was a million dollars to me,â Susan said. âThis lady gave to me out of her need. I gave out of my excess. I donât think I ever will be able to have that superficial perspective again.â
They are temporarily living in a rental property owned by their daughter Ashley Robinson. Family and friends and fellow congregants from St. Anne Catholic Church, where Gerry coordinates a Bible study group, have pitched in to give them food, clothes, furniture, household items, money, a Bible and loaned cars.
âIâm not going to obsess on what we lost,â Susan said, âalthough it is a real pain in the neck to have to list everything you own.â
âOnce youâre at the bottom, all you can do is go up,â Gerry said. âWeâre making progress, but those little things, you have to put your life back together. You have to get a new driverâs license, new Social Security cards, new health insurance cards, Medicare, and those things, they take up your day.â
Their relocation means Susan has been shopping at a different Publix, the one on Schomburg Road. She was unfamiliar with the layout and asked the assistant manager to help her. After sharing her story about the fire, he didnât allow her to pay for her groceries.
Publix also gave her a turkey and a roasting pan for Thanksgiving. Susan wonât let Gerry smoke their turkey this year.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the Wieczoreks recover.
âAn entire constellation of things had to perfectly come together for us to survive this fire,â Susan said. âI feel I have been given a gift of life. Just like our neighbors served us that night, we will continue our ministry, and we will rebuild our lives and go forward.â
The ordeal has motivated them, Susan said, âto not sweat the small stuff anymore.â Then she gestured toward Gerry and added with a smile, âHe could even use my toothbrush and I probably wouldnât yell at him â because heâs here.â
Another example Susan offered: âMy shoes and my pocket book always had to match. Not anymore.â
Since the fire, when she wakes up in the morning, Susan refers to Psalm 118:24 as she says to herself, âThis is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and give thanks in it.â
And she refers to Job 1:21 when she says, âGod gives and God takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.â
So they are focusing on being grateful for what they have instead of being mournful for what they lost.
Susan used to pray every day, âLord, make me more like Yourself, if it takes the deluge of Noah to break down the levy of earthly clutter and debris that stands between me and thee.â
Now, she concluded, âInstead, He did it with fire, but I realize that I really wasnât processing that at a deep level. I think sometimes we think weâre doing good and following all the rules. But for me, this has awakened a much deeper spiritual meaning of life.â
Gerry also has used the fire to alter his outlook.
âWhen you come through a tragedy,â he said, âyou realize how meaningless many things that bother us are in the broad scheme of things.â
For example, Gerry said, they had two recliners in their house, and their temporary home has only one, but he doesnât argue with Susan about who gets to sit in it. And heâs more willing to fetch something for her so she doesnât have to get out of that recliner.
âSheâs the queen of the house,â he said. â. . . It beats having an empty chair.â
Susan reminded Gerry that surviving the July car wreck already had clarified his priorities. Since then, every time he prepares to leave home, he stops to hug her and tell her he loves her.
For years, Susan wanted a sunroom. Gerry finally gave in. They completed it this spring. He called his insurance company to add it to their coverage. The agent said their coverage hadnât been updated in 10 years.
Gerry grumbled about the premium going up. Now, he considers the extra cost a blessing.
âFive, six months later, our house goes up in flames,â he said, âand thereâs enough coverage to do everything we need to do.â
In their next house, Susan said, they will have more than one exit out of their bedroom. But they hope to rebuild on the same property. After all, they want to keep those same neighbors.
The day after the fire, Nancy bought a fire escape ladder for their second-story bedroom.
And after the Wieczoreks move back to Mooreâs Forest, Susan said, âWeâre going to throw a big block party.â
Then she sparked laughter when she said they will âcook something on a nonflammable surface.â
One of the photos their daughter Ashley took of the damage to the house shows a ghost-like image. In a text message, Ashley told Susan, âI think itâs Jennifer, because she looks just like you.â
A firefighter told Susan, she said, âThe hair is standing on my neck. It wasnât in my picture.â
Susan interprets the apparition as Jennifer being their guardian angel and saying, âItâs OK, Mama. Iâve never really left you. Iâve been here all the time.â
In the aftermath of their horror, Susan finds comfort in the moments of grace.
âSomeone got us up and out of that house,â she said. âSomeone told Gerry to come home.â
Gerry also attributes their survival to a higher power.
âGod put into place so many things to save us that night,â he said. âJust me having that inkling to come home, that was a guidance to keep us together and alive.â
The cause of the fire remains undetermined, despite five investigators having visited the house, Gerry said.
They have determined that the fire started in the corner of a wooden storage room in the carport, he said.
âThere was an electrical outlet 2 feet away,â Gerry said, âbut they canât say without any definitive answer what created the fire.â
Dutton, the fire battalion chief, said the investigation so far is pointing toward evidence of squirrels having chewed through the power lines, causing the electricity to arc and spark the fire.
Shores, the fire marshal, confirmed that thinking.
âWeâre leaning toward some abnormal electrical activity associated with the service line coming into the home,â Shores said.
Columbus Council is scheduled to honor Tom and Bruce with a proclamation during the Dec. 4 meeting.
Tom emphasized, âWe were just fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to do the right thing. Itâs nothing more than that. Iâd like to think other people would have done the same for us.â
âIf our house was on fire,â he said, âI think our neighbors would help us. âŚ Someone needed help. You donât question it; you just help.â
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.