In his home in Wading River, George Dalecki laid down in bed about midnight last Monday, weary from a long day. His wife, Jean, was busy brushing her teeth, but as Mr. Dalecki was about to fall asleep, she woke him; she thought she heard the smoke alarms going off.
Mr. Dalecki rolled out of bed to check.
“I thought she was imagining it, but when I opened the door, sure enough, the house was pretty dense with smoke,” he told the News-Review last week.
At first he assumed the smoldering ashes in the fireplace were causing the smoke and that the flue was closed in the chimney.
But something was wrong. The smoke was too thick.
“‘The smoke is choking me almost,'” he recalled thinking. “‘This is the worst I’ve ever seen.'”
He crossed the living room and reached his hand into the flue. It was wide open. Outside, the Daleckis saw a bright light. It was the glow of the couple’s car, burning in the driveway.
“Then I knew we were in trouble,” he said.
The couple raced back into the bedroom and threw on their clothes. As they tried to escape, the power cut out, plunging the couple into darkness as the smoke alarms went silent.
As they ran across the snow-covered lawn, the car in their two-car garage exploded, Ms. Dalecki said. The whole garage went up in flames.
“We might have died had those alarms not gone off,” Mr. Dalecki said. “I owe [Jean] my life.”
Two dozen firefighters from Wading River were called to the scene, with the first volunteers arriving at the house on Michaels Lane four minutes after the call came in, said Wading River Fire Chief Mark Donnelly.
For Ms. Dalecki, the wait seemed immeasurable.
“I kept thinking, ‘Where are they?’ ” Ms. Dalecki said.
George Dalecki started to shake uncontrollably, and ambulance volunteers rushed him to Peconic Bay Medical Center to check for a heart attack, he said. He was quickly released from the hospital and returned to his house to find his home of more than three decades destroyed.
“I spent a lot of time on that house,” he said. “A lot of labor went into that house.”
Though the cause of the fire remains under investigation, Mr. Dalecki said it appears the fire started in the garage. The car inside then ignited, spreading the flames.
Since the fire, the couple are wearing clothes borrowed from friends. A friend has loaned them a car and an empty home for them to live in.
Mr. Dalecki said he’s “embarrassed” by the fundraiser, and asked those running the drive not to put a dollar amount as a goal. Still, the kindness of his neighbors have helped the family through the hardship.
It’s the emotional support Mr. Dalecki said he values most of all.
“When I saw some of the comments and donations on there, I just became choked with emotion and tears about how thoughtful people are,” he said. “It’s overwhelming … We’re doing whatever we can. The insurance agents have been wonderful. It’s all working out.”
The family has been through worse, he said. The Daleckis’ 16-year-old daughter died 12 years ago.
“People ask me why I’m not upset about this fire and I tell them that I’ve already been through hell,” Mr. Dalecki said.
On Friday, Mr. and Ms. Dalecki sifted through the remains of their house, salvaging what they could into plastic bins. The garage of the home, where a car had been parked, was reduced to a short pile of rubble. The chimney to the house stood unsupported over the destroyed remains of the second floor and living room.
In the driveway, three vehicles were sectioned off with an orange plastic construction fence. A new Rav-4 SUV was burned beyond recognition except for a small section of blue paint on the rear bumper.
The other side of the house appeared to be untouched from the outside.
“They say, ‘Oh, you have half your house left,’ ” Ms. Dalecki said. “Nope.”
The family avoided the living room, where the ceiling is weak from the fire damage and the walls were charred black. Plywood sealed off the damaged walls from the open air.
Up the now-dirty carpeted stairs, Ms. Dalecki pointed into her son’s bedroom. The door — half torn away by the fire — is jammed open and light strains to get through a soot-covered stained glass window.
Her son was traveling in Spain at the time of the fire.
“He brought 50 pounds [of luggage] with him,” she said. “I had to tell him that’s all he has now.”
The couple’s bedroom downstairs is on the opposite side of the house from where the fire struck. While the fire didn’t reach the bedroom, save for a thin film of ash on every surface, the bed and the furniture were all smoke-damaged and the clothes that once hung in the closet were piled on the floor to be trashed.
Everything inside reeks of smoke, an odor that clung onto clothes for hours.
A few photo albums will be saved, Ms. Dalecki said, and a fire restoration team has already gotten to work repairing what they can. She knows she and her husband were lucky to escape unharmed.
“It’s just stuff,” she repeated. “It’s just stuff.”
– WADING RIVER FIRE DEPARTMENT COURTESY PHOTO | Firefighters combat the fire that destroyed the Dalecki family’s home on Michael Lane.
– PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The view down the stairs of the fire-damaged home in Wading River.