Four months after house fire, Worthington family talks about the overwhelming generosity of others
Joswiaks went from having no home, clothes or food to having a five-bedroom farmhouse rental, trailers of furnishings, a freezer and frozen meals. They hope to, when they get back on their feet, help others in need.
WORTHINGTON — Christmas may be the season of giving, but a rural Worthington family quickly discovered just how giving a community can be after losing their home and everything in it to a Labor Day weekend fire.
Angie and Joe Joswiak, along with two of their four children, escaped the burning flames that engulfed their home shortly before 4 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 4. The fire started in the garage of the new addition the family had nearly completed, though an investigation by the state’s Fire Marshal yielded inconclusive data on the cause.
In the months since the blaze, the Joswiaks have been the recipients of numerous donations, from cash and clothes to food and furniture — and a nearly-too-good-to-be-true tip on a potential rental within a mile of their acreage. They moved into that five-bedroom farmhouse within 24 hours of the fire, and continue to consider their options, which includes the potential to build a new home on their property.
Despite what they have lost, Angie said they have many reasons to be thankful.
“When we are going through hard times is really when we learn to appreciate how wonderful and amazing our friends, families, employers, firefighters, police officers, communities and even strangers really are,” she said. “In a world that seems so ‘bad’, there really is a lot of good.”
Rush to escape
Angie had awoken in the early morning hours of Sept. 4 and decided to go to the bathroom and check on son Colt, 4, in a nearby bedroom. She opened the bedroom door, however, to find the hallway filled with thick, gray smoke. The vaulted ceiling in the new living room of their home was completely engulfed in flames, and one wall was already gone, as was their new garage.
“I had the two-year-old (Andie) in bed with me because she wasn’t feeling well, and Joe was in the basement,” Angie shared. “I just screamed, ‘Fire, fire, we’ve got to get out.’”
Joe burst up the stairs, they each grabbed a child and escaped through the sliding doors in the kitchen before calling for help.
“We had minutes,” Angie said. “We didn’t have time for anything. Colt got out in a Pull-Up.”
With Angie and the two kids safe outside, Joe rushed back into the burning house to grab car keys and his work computer. After he rushed into the house a second time, Angie watched in horror as the roof fell in.
“I was trying to break the egress window hoping he was downstairs,” she said, adding that Joe heard rocks hit the window and went to open it. Knowing his time was limited to get out, Joe grabbed a couple of blankets from son Jett’s bed, threw them to Angie and crawled outside.
Jett, 9, and Jace, 7, were at their grandparents for the weekend — a blessing in more ways than one.
By the time firefighters arrived on the scene — three departments responded, including Brewster, Worthington and Wilmont — there was nothing they could do except prevent the fire from spreading to other outbuildings. Crews worked for about nine hours, not only to protect the property, but to help sift through the debris afterwards.
“It’s amazing how everything — the old part of the basement was still there to walk through, but everything was so smoke and water damaged,” Angie said. “I had a tote full of the kids’ projects from school, and during remodeling, it was stored in the back bedroom (in the basement). The tote was all melted, but the kids’ school projects were still there. Little stuff like that is really the stuff you care about anyway.
“You work for everything you have and … I wasn’t even sad about all of the stuff,” she added. “We were all there and we were all OK.”
Help, donations abound
During the hours firefighters worked at the scene, the Joswiaks began to experience an outpouring of aid, from the attendees from the nearby Church of the Brethren delivering water and coffee to Hy-Vee donating donuts and the delivery of breakfast foods by police officers (Joe is a WPD investigator). Worthington’s Jon Lang also came with containers of food from his barbecue business.
“People took care of us when we didn’t know what to do,” shared Angie. “Every time we turned around, worried if there was anything to salvage and go through, people were showing up with food.”
Genny McCuen and Rachel Roemeling, wives of WPD officers, used their homes as drop-off sites for people to donate, and the items just kept coming.
“The day we moved in (to the rental), was the most emotional day of my life,” Angie recalled. “We thought we were moving in with nothing … and people just showed up with trailers full of stuff. We ended up sleeping in beds on Monday night.”
Granted, the beds were on loan, as was some of the furniture.
“Our kids had closets full of clothes to go to school on Tuesday,” Angie said, still amazed by the donations. “Getting them ready for school, we had shoes to pick from and clothes to pick from.”
It was unbelievable for the couple — Joe is a native of the Twin Cities, while Angie grew up in Brandon, South Dakota.
“Joe’s family could not believe the amount of people that reached out and helped,” Angie said. “They said you would never have gotten that (in the cities).”
A Go Fund Me page was established by Joe’s coworker, Tim Gaul, and monetary donations poured in through there as well. The page is now closed, and the Joswiaks plan to use the money to purchase furnishings for their new house — whether they buy something or build.
A diamond in the rubble
As firefighters were working on that Saturday to tame the fire, they overheard Angie say that her wedding ring was still in the house and offered to look for it after they were done.
“I was like, yeah, right, how are you going to find a wedding ring,” Angie said she recalled thinking, though she didn’t say it aloud.
When the fire was out, firefighters spent an extra two hours searching through the rubble for the ring. They found it inside a melted tote.
“I couldn’t believe they found it, but what mattered even more is how much those individuals cared,” Angie said. “It meant everything — it brought hope that everything was going to be OK.”
While the ring was badly damaged, Angie has been in contact with the jeweler where it was purchased.
“They said the only salvageable part is the center stone,” she said, adding that she’s still exploring options.
The Joswiaks know they are lucky to have survived the blaze. A friend of Angie’s father, who is a fire chief in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said most fires in the night don’t have that kind of ending. Most people would have died from smoke inhalation.
The family did have smoke detectors in their home, but unfortunately they hadn’t yet been installed in the new addition. Angie said they didn’t hear a smoke alarm go off until they were outside.
Since the fire, Angie lives with reminders of that night, and always makes sure their bedroom doors are closed at night. Now looking at floor plans, she insists their next home will have all of the bedrooms on the same side of the house, as well as stairs to an upper or lower level.
“I don’t need anything fancy — I just want what I had,” she said. “Prices are so expensive right now; I don’t know if we can build what we had.”
The Joswiaks aren’t asking for additional help, but rather, the opportunity to thank everyone for the help they have received.
“It definitely puts you in a situation where you can’t wait to give back,” Angie said. “It’s very humbling, the amount of people that reached out and were willing to give. You want to pay everybody back, but you just don’t know how.
“We just want to pay it forward once we get back on our feet,” she added. “(The help) was very heartwarming and humbling — it makes you look at life a little differently.”