Edgerton blaze displaces family of 13

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, February 2, 2013

— It was 3:30 p.m. Friday, and Victor Gonzalez was still in his pajamas. They’re the only belongings he has left besides the cellphone he used to call 911 hours earlier.

Yet Gonzalez said he’s grateful. His 11 children staying at the home are alive, and nobody was hurt in a fire that devastated his three-story Victorian home at 211 Albion St. early Friday.

Twenty-two fire departments from southern Wisconsin and Illinois combined efforts in a five-hour battle against a blaze that fire officials believe started in a malfunctioning furnace in an enclosed room on the third floor of the 5,000-square-foot house.

The fire broke out about 2 a.m. and raged through the second and third floors, where the family’s bedrooms are located, officials said. Crews of up to a dozen firefighters took 15-minute shifts fighting the fire from inside the house in the frigid cold, Edgerton Fire Chief Brian Demrow said.

Gonzalez’s family was evacuated and then watched from a neighbor’s home across the street.

“I thought it would be over quickly, But the longer and longer it went on and on, the more damage I saw and the more despair I felt,” Gonzalez told The Gazette in a phone interview.

All of the family’s belongings were destroyed in the blaze, and the house is uninhabitable, Gonzalez said.

“Everything we own, everything, if it’s not burned up, it’s underneath a foot of frozen water,” Gonzalez said.

Demrow said firefighters spent hours flushing the fire with cascades of water that froze almost as soon as it left the hose. The fire kept flashing through the old wood and plaster walls in the house, he said, jumping from room to room, floor to floor.

Demrow said he called in more than 20 fire departments because he wanted enough resources to fight the blaze. With temperatures in the single digits, hypothermia and exposure to cold and freezing water were threats to firefighters, Demrow said.

No damage estimates were available Friday, but Demrow said the firefighting effort left nearly all of the walls and ceilings knocked out of the upper stories and heavy smoke and water damage throughout the house.

The roof and gables of the house sustained heavy damage, and rivulets of frozen water covered the inner and outer walls of the home Friday as afternoon temperatures hovered around 5 degrees.

City of Edgerton workers used backhoes to remove a foot of water that had flooded Albion Street and turned to thick slush during the frigid morning hours.

Early Friday afternoon, the Edgerton Fire Department had to return to the house to extinguish a hotspot that flared up.

Gonzalez, who is a real estate agent in Edgerton and a Spanish language interpreter for Rock County, said his wife, Erin, and their 11 children spent Friday at a neighbor’s house across the street.

Gonzalez withheld the names of his children because he said three are current foster children and four are adopted former foster children. He said he’s fostered 16 children over the last eight years, all in the house on Albion Street.

The children range in age from 2 to 19, although Gonzalez said his oldest son was not home because he attends college in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Gonzalez and his wife were awake when the fire broke out. They’d been attending to one of their sons who has an ear infection.

Gonzalez said he noticed that some of the lights weren’t working on the third floor. He checked the breakers in the basement, saw nothing was wrong and went back to bed. Then he heard a bang and a crackling noise.

Gonzalez said he checked the third floor and found the enclosed furnace room was on fire. He ran to get a fire extinguisher, but when he got back, the fire had begun to spread fast and was too hot.

He said all of his children executed the family’s fire evacuation plan, and everyone got out without a scratch.

“They just got on their shoes and coats, and they went,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said his family is crushed by the damage to their home. The family has spent years renovating the circa-1905 house, which has its history rooted in Edgerton’s tobacco heyday.

His greatest pride was transforming the third-floor attic into bedrooms and an office.

Now, the family is waiting to learn the scope of the damage.

He said insurance agents were working all day Friday to learn the extent of damage to the house and find temporary housing for the family.

Already, 10 people have offered homes in Edgerton that Gonzalez said are large enough to accommodate his family of 13. He does not anticipate having to give up any of the children he’s fostering.

“We expect fully to continue fostering. We’re not going to be moving to an apartment that

isn’t going to fit everyone. Our insurance company won’t let that happen. They’re stepping up to the plate,” Gonzalez said.

His family is doing its best to cope.

“They’re doing well. Foster care doesn’t insulate a child from life experiences,” Gonzalez said. “When you take a child into foster care, you try to provide them a normal home. Tragedy, unfortunately, is a normal home. It’s something people experience.”

Meanwhile, Gonzalez said, people from the community have offered support. He said residents, churches, schools and other local agencies have given his family gloves, mittens and coats. Others have brought milk, bread, lunches and dinners—even clothing.

“We pretty much have the olden days insurance—the 1900s insurance. That’s your neighbor taking care of you. We had nothing hours ago, and now we have everything. The police chief even offered us his home to stay,” Gonzalez said.

Family members haven’t fully wrapped their heads around the situation yet, but the outpouring of community support has buoyed them.

“All the despair we’ve felt, all the loss, it’s outnumbered and outmatched by the kindness from all of these people. Some people we know, some we don’t. How do you even give thanks for all of it? You just say ‘thank you,’ I guess,” Gonzalez said.

To help

Volunteers have established a fund at Associated Bank to help the Gonzalez family recover from the fire that seriously damaged their home at 211 Albion St., Edgerton. People can donate to the fund by visiting any area Associated Bank. Fulton Church’s Facebook page also will post updates on how to help.

Last updated: 8:14 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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