Hamernicks face long road to recovery following Dec. 3 blaze
A Wyoming family with deep local roots is without a permanent home following an early-morning fire on Tuesday, Dec. 3.
Kathie Hamernick awoke to the sound of a smoke alarm just after 1 a.m. at her family’s home of three years at 4950 259th Court in Wyoming. She smelled plastic burning and opened a door to find the three-stall garage in flames.
“I slammed the door and ran,” Hamernick said this week. “My kids did not wake up to the fire alarm. I yelled for both of them, and I flipped both of their lights on and yelled, and the second they heard my voice, they jumped up and got out of bed.”
Hamernick led her 16-year-old son, Hunter, and 11-year-old daughter, Lexi, outside. The family dog, Sadie, followed. Hamernick’s nephew, 18-year-old Trent Rabel, had recently moved in and Hamernick believed she had heard him leave to plow snow with her brother soon before the fire. However, upon fleeing the burning house, she noticed Rabel’s truck at the end of the driveway.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God. He wasn’t leaving; he was coming home.’ So I ran back into the house to see if I could find him,” she said.
Rabel was not in his bedroom. Hamernick’s second exit from the house came just as the fire was spreading from the garage to the main entrance, and bits of burning plastic singed her face.
“I had no idea the magnitude of what was going on, only the smell that I understood,” she said. “I had no idea that my house looked like that when I was running in, but I was in mommy mode: You save your family.”
Icy roads and ongoing precipitation presented a challenge to responding agencies. A Wyoming Police Department officer was first on the scene, followed by the Wyoming Fire Department at 1:31 a.m.
By phone, Hunter Hamernick reached Rabel, who indeed was plowing snow in Forest Lake. Rabel had been picked up just before the fire.
Rabel then got ahold of his uncle, Jason Hamernick, Kathie’s husband, who was at Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus. Jason Hamernick could see the fire from the interstate on his way to Wyoming.
“There were bright lights, and I could see the orange aura in the sky,” he said.
Before those two were accounted for, the second Hamernick son checked in from St. Louis, where he attends college. Chase Hamernick, 19, had seen posts and pictures made on Twitter by his brother.
As firefighters, including ones from the Forest Lake and Stacy-Lent Township departments, battled the blaze, neighbors and relatives assisted the Hamernicks by providing encouragement, shelter and warm clothing.
“Everyone kind of jumped right in and helped us out,” Kathie Hamernick said.
Several hours in, firefighters located Lexi Hamernick’s cat, Oliver. The pet was a present to the girl from her oldest brother upon his departure to college. Kathie and Jason Hamernick immediately took the cat to their kids.
Firefighters also saved several fish mounts. Jason Hamernick is a professional guide and the items are treasured by the family.
“It was amazing because that’s our family’s pastime,” Kathie Hamernick said. “One-by-one, they just got them out. It was pretty cool.”
The firefighters were on the scene for at least seven hours.
“By the time we were on the scene, it was already in the second floor of house,” Wyoming Fire Chief J.J. Hastings said. “It spread really fast.”
The master bedroom had already collapsed into the garage when Kathie Hamernick awoke on the living room couch, she said.
Neighbors said they awoke to explosions. Firefighters found the back door to the garage laying in the back yard, bent in half. It had been sealed shut and secured with plywood and two-by-fours, Kathie Hamernick said. Chief Hastings said the cause of the fire has not been determined. Investigation is ongoing.
It has not been determined whether any part of the house can be saved. Hastings last week had yet to file his official report but preliminarily estimated $200,000 damage to the house and more than $150,000 of possessions lost, including a recently purchased van.
Activity in the wake of the incident has been fast, yet progress has been slow, the Hamernicks said.
They left the scene around 8 a.m. but were needed back an hour later to meet with an insurance adjuster. Appointments followed with a contractor to board up the house’s remains and a restoration company to remove smoke from salvageable items. Meanwhile, shelter and transportation issues remain. For now, the family is staying at a local hotel. The Hamernicks would like to find a rental property, but the market is tight.
The kids returned to school on Monday: Hunter to Forest Lake High School and Lexi to Columbus Elementary. Kathie Hamernick is not sure when she will be able to return to her job at Forest Lake Elementary. Too many hurdles remain, from taking inventory of their belongings to replacing driver’s licenses.
“Nobody has given us any answers to where to go from here,” she said. “We’re at a standstill. … Every day the weather is like this and the insurance is going through is a hold up for us.”
The silver lining has been the response of relatives and community members. Donations of toiletries and clothes have poured in, and a website seeking monetary donations for the family went up within hours. Also, the high school’s boys lacrosse program is organizing a dinner and auction to raise funds.
“It’s amazing how much we’ve found we’re connected through some way,” Kathie Hamernick said. “The support we’re having is unbelievable. They’re all understanding, supportive; (they would) do anything.”
The Hamernicks are also trying to keep their loss in perspective. Kathie Hamernick recalled a recent conversation she had with a co-worker whose husband had been going through serious health issues.
“I said, ‘You know what? You just never know when it’s going to happen. If something happened to me, I would hope you’d do the same for me,’” she told her co-worker. “And here I am.”
The Hamernicks have personally thanked their neighbors. Since they live on a cul de sac, those farther down the road were bound in by fire hoses and missed several hours of work the morning of the fire.
No matter what is determined with their former house, the Hamernicks intend to eventually return to 259th Court.
“Everyone asks: ‘Are you going to rebuild?’” Kathie Hamernick said. “How can you not? We grew up in this community. We brought our (family) back to this community. There’s really nowhere else we’d want to rebuild.”
Hastings said families in these situations face a long road, but one that can be navigated.
“This is truly one of those life-changing events for them that we hope they can recover from as soon as possible,” he said. “It will take a large chunk of the next 12 months to put their life back together, but hopefully they will have no lasting effects from this.”
The family is moving forward with the knowledge that the fire’s toll could have been much worse.
“If I would’ve been in the bedroom, the scenario would’ve been different,” Kathie Hamernick said. “Those kids never would’ve made it out of the basement.
“The kids didn’t wake up during that fire, so there’s a lot of things we’ll do different. The firefighters said I did everything right, but there’s a lot of things that so could’ve gone wrong and so many elements that could’ve been different.”
She strongly urges proper installation and testing of fire alarms. Even functional alarms will not serve their purpose if they are not loud enough or in a location where they will be heard, she added.
“Make sure that everyone checks their fire alarms,” she said. “I’m amazed of how many people (don’t). I’m not preaching, but just warning. If that fire alarm didn’t go off, I wouldn’t be here and my family wouldn’t be here.”
How to help
Several means are available for those wishing to aid the Hamernicks. Monetary donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/5lj1mw or to the Hamernick Family Benefit fund established at U.S. Bank. A spaghetti dinner and silent auction will be held from 3-6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, at Vannelli’s by the Lake, 55 S. Lake St. Search “Hamernick Family Benefit” to RSVP via Facebook. Call or text 612-986-1189 to donate silent auction items.