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Some things can't be replaced after house fire for family

Dec. 26, 2012

While the Van Wagners will rebuild, the loss of 20 years worth of memories in their home has hit hard. Amy Van Wagner said the first day they returned to go through the house, you had to wear boots because the water was so high inside the home from extinguishing the fire.

"We just got our inventory list," Amy said during an interview several weeks ago. "And I don't want to show my daughter. I know it's just 'stuff' but I know that a box of Barbies and unicorns she loves was ruined.

"They're trying to save my wedding dress and flowers. They're trying to dry out my ornaments that the kids made in school. I had 15 bins of just Halloween stuff," Amy said of her favorite holiday that is also her birthday.

Amy said it was an emotional experience to watch as cleaning crews came in and dried off their house and began to pack up things in storage pods that would later be determined salvageable or not.

"It's hard to watch people pack up 20 years of your life and see it either go in a Dumpster or pod.

"You feel helpless. You know it's just stuff, but it's stuff that can't be replaced. I have been collecting Halloween for 50 years there was stuff my grandmother made, my kids made," she said.

Regardless of the pain felt by losing so much of your tangible life, Van Wagner maintains a positive outlook and appreciates the help cleaning up. Through her insurance company a restoration crew is taking care of cleanup and storage after the fire.

"I didn't even know these people existed. I thought they would have to ask friends to help go through our things," she said.

Other angels

It wasn't just that fireman that helped save the day for the Van Wagners even though they lost so much. When Amy was asked if she would consider an in-depth interview on what a family goes through when a home is destroyed by fire her answer was, "Yes. Then I can have another opportunity to say, 'thank you.' "

Her thanks extend beyond the public safety crews. There were two men who were passing by the home that evening and saw the fire.

"They saw the flames and the two kids standing outside and they came running in because they knew the parents must still be inside," Amy said. She later discovered one of the men was a customer at Flannery's liquor story where Amy works. "When we saw each other again, we both got emotional. He gave me a hug and told me he went home that night and hugged his kids," after the emotional and humbling experience of encountering the fire, Amy said.

Two people who also saw what was going on the neighborhood, only known as Chris and Carl to Amy, handed a Red Cross worker the money in their pockets. "They gave them $32 and said please give this to the family," she recalled.

The Oconomowoc schools contacted the family asking what they could do. Amy said the children needed school supplies, "but I made it clear they don't need to buy new clothes. I told them we can take handmedowns so we have gotten a ton of things," she said.

Oconomowoc Youth Football also donated items and numerous friends gave gift cards. "It's just been overwhelming. It's an awesome community," Amy said chocking up thinking about the support her family has received in this trying time.

Rob Dams with National Restoration, the company working to renovate the Vang Wager home, said the outreach Oconomowoc has provided to the Van Wagner family to him in his years of working in these situations is unusual.

"Usually neighbors don't even help victims. It's usually business as usual the next day and that's not the case here," he said.

Something to hold on to

It's that simple gesture or a shoulder to lean on Oconomowoc Deputy Chief Leidel said is so important in an event like the Van Wagners endured. The deputy chief Amy said was the last one to leave the night of the fire.

"I couldn't believe it. The fire chief was still there. He gave me a hug and asked if I would be OK. I didn't even know who the man was," Amy recalled taken aback by the gesture.

Leidel said in his job many times you're arriving at someone's home on the worst day of their lives. "If you can give them that one little finger to hold on to it becomes something to grasp as the first steps of making it better begin. Then that one finger becomes something more and things can start to get better.

"There are always questions and we may not have the answers but we can be there to listen. I want to be sure - all of us want to be sure - that there's that next step. That they can start on that new path," Leidel said.

A new path

Today, Amy, Stan, daughter Chevelle, 16, sons Thor, 13 and Wolfgang, 17, are on a new path.

"We are taking it day by day and trying to get into the Christmas spirit," said Amy in a prior interview.

And she said the community hasn't stopped reaching out to help them get there. On Dec. 9, someone dropped off an envelope that held a signed card from a group of neighbors who also enclosed a gift cards and coupons for meals. "I recognized the names and it is one neighborhood that did this. One subdivision got together and chose to give to my family," Amy said.

The ever humble and ever gracious Amy Van Wagner never stopped being thankful as she recalled the events of Nov. 8 as she stood in her vacant home. Dams suggested it was her kind spirit that inspired so many to help her family in their time of need.

"I just say treat people as you would like to be treated," said Amy in response. And even though she's still in the midst of starting over after the fire, she's already looking from the inside out on how she would react to someone in such a time of need.

"I hope I'm that person that if I see someone in need I can help," she said.

Editor's note: This story is the third part of an in-depth look at what a family goes through when their home is destroyed by a fire. The Van Wagner family of Oconomowoc agreed to share their story with the Focus after a fire destroyed their home on Nov. 8.

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