Friday, 14 December 2018
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An especially thankful Thanksgiving for these Columbus fire survivors and their heroes

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 “just words before,” Susan said. “It’s the experience now.”

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 Moore’s Forest cul-de-sac on Gray Shoals Drive.

The survivors

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.

“I should have died right there,” said Gerry, who was saved by his seat belt and airbag.

The woman also wasn’t injured.

Gerry surviving that crash allowed him to be home with Susan the night of their fire — so did his inexplicable decision to cut short his hunting trip. They also are grateful for who wasn’t 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 Wieczoreks’ home. They slept in the two spare bedrooms, where the Wieczoreks’ sons, Brian and Clay, and daughter Ashley used to sleep. Those bedrooms are closest to the carport. That’s where the fire started the next night.

In hindsight, Susan sure is glad her grandchildren declined her invitation to extend their stay.

“God has us in His hands,” 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 doesn’t know, he changed his mind and returned home.

“Something just told me,” he said.

He arrived home around 6:30 p.m., and both were asleep by 11:15 p.m.

The cat, the fans and the door

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 isn’t home, Susan likes to keep the fans off, the cat on the bed and the bedroom door open.

So if Gerry hadn’t 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, didn’t survive the fire — but helped Gerry and Susan survive it.

“Poncho, who gave his life, is the reason that door was closed,” 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.

“I think I smell smoke,” Susan said.

“So do I,” Gerry said.

Gerry went to the bedroom door. It was closed only because he wanted to keep the cat out of their bed.

“The firefighters say that saved our lives,” Gerry said.

He touched the door. It wasn’t hot, so he opened it.

A blast of heat and smoke choked him. He immediately closed the door.

“The house is on fire,” Gerry told Susan. “We cannot go down those stairs.”

The roar of the fire was so loud, they couldn’t 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.

“I was going to get in the tub and cover myself with water,” 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 didn’t want to jump, so Gerry was fixing to push her — but that’s when the first of their heroes appeared at their front door and yelled, “Is anybody home?”

Gerry: “Yes, Tom, we’re on the second floor! We’re trapped!”

The heroes

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 family’s dog, Charlie, woke up Tom with an alarming bark the night of the fire, a little before midnight.

“Dogs have different barks,” Tom said. “They have the ‘I’m bored and I hear another dog barking, so I’m just going to make noise.’ Then they have the ‘I’m either scared or very angry.’ The dog’s bark was No. 2. Something was wrong.”

Charlie is a rescue dog. He sleeps in the kitchen of their one-story home.

“We actually found him a year ago at St. Thomas Episcopal Church,” said Tom’s wife, Michelle.

“The rescue dog is the hero,” Tom said. “The rescue dog started the rescue.”

Tom grabbed his pistol and a flashlight. He saw a huge glow outside.

“I thought maybe the front of our house was on fire,” he said.

After he opened his front door, Tom heard a roar.

“It sounded like a gigantic gas furnace,” 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 other’s family.

“Whether they like it or not,” Tom cracked, “they are extended family.”

But this was the first emergency they responded to together.

“There are certain people you learn you can count on,” Tom explained. “I just instinctively knew he would respond well under pressure.”

Bruce answered Michelle’s call right away.

“I leave my phone on at night,” Bruce said. “I’ve got kids. If they call, I want to be able to answer.”

She told him there was a fire across the street but didn’t know which house.

“I looked out the window,” Bruce said, “and I saw the blaze.”

Meanwhile, Tom already was across the street at the Wieczoreks’ house. He found a spot near the front door where the heat wasn’t as intense and started kicking and yelling.

After hearing Gerry shout that they were trapped upstairs in their bedroom, Tom shouted up to them, “Stay there! We will get you out!”

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.

“The moment I put the ladder against their window,” Tom said, “Bruce was right there.”

Flames engulfed the left side of the house. The right side, containing the master bedroom, was filling with smoke.

They looked up — and they saw Susan halfway out the window.

The rescue

Tom’s 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 — this time with Bruce — 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.

“I was just trying to stabilize Susan so she doesn’t fall down,” Bruce said. “She was hesitant to get on the ladder. But as soon as she got both feet on the ladder, we came right down.”

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, “We got you. We got you. Come on down. Come on down. We’re going to help. We’re going to get you out.”

Gerry figures they had less than a minute left before the smoke would have overwhelmed them.

“We were rescued just in time,” he said.

Susan admitted, “Maybe there wasn’t enough oxygen in my brain at that point, but I wasn’t 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.”

When she reached the street, turned around and saw the flames shooting above their towering treetops, Susan felt “shock and numbness,” she said.

Another rescue

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, “There’s dogs in there!”

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 didn’t work. Hunter handed Bruce a rock. That worked.

Despite the pleas from Susan, however, Tom immediately aborted the rescue.

“The oxygen got pulled into that fire so fast,” he said, “it 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.”

Having to tell Susan and Gerry they couldn’t get the dogs, Tom said, “It felt like I had failed them.”

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.

“It seemed like forever,” Michelle said.

Tom told one of the firefighters that the people in the home escaped but two dogs were trapped. He didn’t 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.

“To me,” Gerry said, “that’s above and beyond the call of duty, to risk your own life to save someone’s pets.”

Susan added, “Amazing. I cannot thank them enough for thinking that much of what meant something to us.”

As the firefighters carried out the limp dogs, Gerry said, “I thought they were dead.”

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.

“The dogs were conscious, but they were shaking,” Bruce said. “They were in shock, it looked like. One of the dog’s eyes was seeping.”

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.

“I have to give up all my Auburn jokes now,” she said.

They not only took good care of her dogs, she said, but they also “greatly reduced the bill.”

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, “but he’s getting better every day.”

Fire department’s assessment

Columbus Fire Marshal Rickey Shores described the balance between life and death during a fire.

“You don’t have minutes; you have seconds,” Shores said. “It’s 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 it’s highly likely they are alive today because of those two gentlemen. Those guys saved their lives. There’s no doubt.”

It’s clear the military experience Tom and Bruce have, including Tom’s firefighting skills, helped them respond appropriately, Shores said.

“When you have that kind of training, especially leadership positions, you tend to recognize impending peril more quickly than the average citizen,” Shore said. “Very few people want to get involved in something they’re not familiar with. Situational awareness comes into play. It takes a lot, and those guys are veterans. They’ve been around a while. They just have that mentality, that sense to know ‘If I don’t take action, nobody else will,’ and we’re thankful they did.”

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 neighbor’s rescue attempt was successful.

“If that couple had jumped out that window and onto pillows, they would have been severely injured,” Dutton said. “When you have neighbors like that, it actually saves lives.”

Dutton praised Gerry for closing their bedroom door.

“Had he not done that,” the battalion chief said, “the smoke probably would have killed them.”

He also lauded the 19 firefighters who were on the scene. Only one firefighter (ankle) was injured, he said.

“All my crews did an exceptional job,” Dutton said. “The neighbors also were great. You could tell that’s a tight community. They take care of each other.”

Special memento

The firefighters had the fire under control within 30 minutes, but nearly all of the Wieczoreks’ 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.

“Yes, sir,” 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.

They did.

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.

“Two firefighters went back in that house and found it for me,” Susan said, shaking her head in awe.

Other items they’ve recovered since that night range from silly to serious, including a 1980 “All About Columbus” board game, an iPad, a 4-foot crucifix and a 2006 love letter from Gerry to Susan marking their 31st wedding anniversary:

“Each day you show me how love rejoices in the right, how to glorify the Lord by bringing Him deeper into our marriage,” he wrote. “. . . I thank God daily for allowing me to spend my life as your husband.”

Twelve years later, he was prepared to push her out of their two-story bedroom window to save her life.

“We will be beginning again,” Susan said. “It’s kind of like old people being newlyweds again.”

The other side of charity

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.

“So many times, we’ve 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,” Gerry said. “I always thought that was overkill, because I’m giving such a simple item. But then you go through a tragedy like this, and you lose everything — your home, your possessions, your vehicles — you literally have whatever’s on your back.”

The night of the fire, Tom brought Gerry clothes for him to wear.

“That meant the world to me, simply because I could put on something other than pajama bottoms and a bathrobe,” Gerry said. “So 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.”

As she watched the firefighters battle the blaze, Susan struggled to accept the fate of their home. She asked Gerry, “Did you lock the door?”

He reminded her, “We don’t have a door anymore.”

While the firefighters battled the blaze, Susan finally stopped asking Gerry whether he unplugged their coffeemaker. Then she felt a “developing awareness of what a close call it was,” she said, “and the tremendous bravery, compassion and concern. There is such a solidarity between us neighbors in Moore’s Forest. We look out for each other.”

Gerry also described the scene as surreal and comforting at the same time.

“You’re there with all those lights flashing in your face and you’re watching the fire, but eight of the 10 families in our circle (on the cul-de-sac) came out to check on us,” he said.

This wasn’t “thoughts and prayers” 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.

“There was so much,” Gerry said, “just love and compassion that was flowing in those moments.”

Thinking about the selfless way Tom and Bruce responded, Susan said, “They saved our lives. There is no doubt about it.”

Gerry added, “I’m very thankful they were there for us. . . . In the face of real danger, with 1,800-degree flames, they didn’t blink. They were very courageous.”

Susan put their rescue in greater perspective, a commentary on modern life.

“You hear so much today that people don’t know their neighbors anymore,” she said. “We 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 Moore’s Forest.”

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.

“The hug was a million dollars to me,” Susan said. “This lady gave to me out of her need. I gave out of my excess. I don’t think I ever will be able to have that superficial perspective again.”

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.

“I’m not going to obsess on what we lost,” Susan said, “although it is a real pain in the neck to have to list everything you own.”

“Once you’re at the bottom, all you can do is go up,” Gerry said. “We’re making progress, but those little things, you have to put your life back together. You have to get a new driver’s license, new Social Security cards, new health insurance cards, Medicare, and those things, they take up your day.”

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 didn’t allow her to pay for her groceries.

Publix also gave her a turkey and a roasting pan for Thanksgiving. Susan won’t let Gerry smoke their turkey this year.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the Wieczoreks recover.

Rebuilding with new perspective

“An entire constellation of things had to perfectly come together for us to survive this fire,” Susan said. “I 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.”

The ordeal has motivated them, Susan said, “to not sweat the small stuff anymore.” Then she gestured toward Gerry and added with a smile, “He could even use my toothbrush and I probably wouldn’t yell at him — because he’s here.”

Another example Susan offered: “My shoes and my pocket book always had to match. Not anymore.”

Since the fire, when she wakes up in the morning, Susan refers to Psalm 118:24 as she says to herself, “This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and give thanks in it.”

And she refers to Job 1:21 when she says, “God gives and God takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

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, “Lord, 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.”

Now, she concluded, “Instead, He did it with fire, but I realize that I really wasn’t processing that at a deep level. I think sometimes we think we’re doing good and following all the rules. But for me, this has awakened a much deeper spiritual meaning of life.”

Gerry also has used the fire to alter his outlook.

“When you come through a tragedy,” he said, “you realize how meaningless many things that bother us are in the broad scheme of things.”

For example, Gerry said, they had two recliners in their house, and their temporary home has only one, but he doesn’t argue with Susan about who gets to sit in it. And he’s more willing to fetch something for her so she doesn’t have to get out of that recliner.

“She’s the queen of the house,” he said. “. . . It beats having an empty chair.”

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 hadn’t been updated in 10 years.

Gerry grumbled about the premium going up. Now, he considers the extra cost a blessing.

“Five, six months later, our house goes up in flames,” he said, “and there’s enough coverage to do everything we need to do.”

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 Moore’s Forest, Susan said, “We’re going to throw a big block party.”

Then she sparked laughter when she said they will “cook something on a nonflammable surface.”

The guardian angel

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, “I think it’s Jennifer, because she looks just like you.”

A firefighter told Susan, she said, “The hair is standing on my neck. It wasn’t in my picture.”

Susan interprets the apparition as Jennifer being their guardian angel and saying, “It’s OK, Mama. I’ve never really left you. I’ve been here all the time.”

In the aftermath of their horror, Susan finds comfort in the moments of grace.

“Someone got us up and out of that house,” she said. “Someone told Gerry to come home.”

Gerry also attributes their survival to a higher power.

“God put into place so many things to save us that night,” he said. “Just me having that inkling to come home, that was a guidance to keep us together and alive.”

Undetermined cause

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.

“There was an electrical outlet 2 feet away,” Gerry said, “but they can’t say without any definitive answer what created the fire.”

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.

“We’re leaning toward some abnormal electrical activity associated with the service line coming into the home,” Shores said.

Columbus Council is scheduled to honor Tom and Bruce with a proclamation during the Dec. 4 meeting.

Tom emphasized, “We were just fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to do the right thing. It’s nothing more than that. I’d like to think other people would have done the same for us.”

Bruce agrees.

“If our house was on fire,” he said, “I think our neighbors would help us. … Someone needed help. You don’t question it; you just help.”

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.


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