Cloudy | 15MPH




September 2014


Family reflects on fire that destroyed their home

Family shares story of recovering from fire that destroyed home

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.

This site uses Facebook comments to make it easier for you to contribute. If you see a comment you would like to flag for spam or abuse, click the "x" in the upper right of it. By posting, you agree to our Terms of Use.

Living Lake Country

E-mail Newsletter

Top stories from the Lake Country area. Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings.

Enter your e-mail address above and click "Sign Up Now!" to begin receiving your e-mail newsletter
Get the Newsletter!

Login or Register to manage all your newsletter preferences.
Lake Country Construction Guide


Consruction season is underway in Lake Country and

we've got you covered when it comes to street closures and delays:

Mukwonago area projects

Sussex, Menomonee Falls area projects

Kettle Moraine area projects

Greater Lake Country area projects


Community Pride 2014


Celebrate Lake Country 

communities with stories

of community pride








Rummage Router
Just click to find a rummage near you
Your Photos
Perren Photography - North Lake , WI
Community Blogs

Lake Country residents share their views on news, happenings and current events.

It's Hemmer Time
By Amy L. Geiger-Hemmer
My Gun

Cook's Corner
By Cynthia Acosta Luksich
Some recipes just scream summer: No bake raspberry lemon bars

Bernie Ziebart

The Engineering Perspective
By Bernie Ziebart
Venezuela: the liberal utopia

Fair E-tales

Until next time

"Hear's" to Life!
By Tami Klink
October Conference for Hearing Loss! features more than a dozen community bloggers - a group of volunteer conversation leaders who are up on the latest topics and never short on an opinion. Just a few are pictured here. Check out the rest and see what they have to say!

View All Blogs

Discussion Guidelines

Do you want to become a Community Blogger? welcomes your thoughts and opinions. Contact us for more information:
I want to blog

Legal Notices
Back to top