“Someone’s burning toast again.”
That was Alex Gesiakowski’s first thought Jan. 6 as he lounged around in his family’s Dyer home.
His mom and sister left for a movie, and Alex had the place to himself when suddenly the smoke alarms started going off, a usual indication that someone charred an attempted meal.
But the alarms kept ringing. And this time, it wasn’t toast.
The Dyer townhouse was on fire with the 20-year-old inside.
“I went upstairs and started to smell something strange and found the garage door on fire,” he said. “I panicked and just started running, making sure no one else was home before I left.”
Barefoot and coatless, Alex ran outside, finding neighbors surrounding the house that was now engulfed in flames.
St. John Fire Department already had been called and were heading to the home in the 10000 block of Gettler Street in unincorporated St. John Township. Firefighters from the St. John, Lake Hills and Dyer fire departments assisted, along with Lake County police, St. John Fire Chief Fred Willman said.
The first call Alex made was to his mom, Melinda Jacobson Gesiakowski, who was home just 15 minutes before.
“We hadn't even got off of Route 30 when he called screaming. I turned around and drove, I’m sure, like an idiot,” she said. “I could hear him and the neighbors yelling and crying, trying to get our dog out. That felt like the longest ride back ever.”
While Melinda rushed home, daughter Nicole Gesiakowski, 18, called her stepdad and Melinda's fiance, Will Weinand.
“I knew it was bad, so I just hung up and left work,” Will said, explaining he barely could understand Nicole shouting on the other side of the phone. “I actually went in early that day. If I would have stayed home, this might not have ever happened.”
The family of five reunited, huddled together in the cold, watching as firefighters fought the flames tearing through the home they lived in for the past 3 1/2 years. The smoldering lasted for roughly three hours, Will said.
They lost everything. They lost their beloved dog, Molly, and cat, Toby. They lost the family car, all their clothes and shoes. They lost years of collectible memories.
“We all can get super overwhelmed and very sad, but I focus on the fact they we are all still here,” Melinda said, with arms crossed and tears in her eyes. “As hard as it was to lose the pets … you can’t get another Molly or Toby, but you can get another cat or dog. I can’t get another Alex. I can’t get another son.”
The influx of support from neighbors, family, friends and even strangers started instantly and has continued since the fire, which caused the family to move into a hotel room in Schererville.
“Right after it happened, I’m standing outside and we are packing up and some random guy stops by and says, ‘Are you the owner of the house?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he hands me $100 and drives away. I don’t know his name or how to thank him,” Weinand said, adding that neighbors came to the house with shoes, clothes, blankets and food.
“It’s crazy how much people have given us.”
Alex’s employer, Jay Marie Salon and Spa in Schererville, donated flat irons, hair dryers and products to Alex and his sisters, Nicole and 15-year-old Amanda Weinand. Co-workers brought bedding and toiletries.
Sip Coffee House and Artisan Café in Highland set out a donation jar, specifically designated for the family.
Teachers from Lake Central High School, where Amanda is a sophomore, have offered to set up clothes drives.
Melinda’s sister, Sherry Jacobson-Skertich, created a GoFundMe campaign Jan. 7 to help cover the family’s living funds needed for future home replacement, refurnishing and rebuilding. So far, more than $13,000 has been donated.
“There have been so many people constantly asking, ‘What can we bring you?’ And I don’t even know where to start. It’s so overwhelming because where do you start when you have nothing?” Melinda said. “But, the neighbors and our friends have been amazing. I don’t feel like we're starting over because there's been so much support and people who want to give.”
The outside of the Dyer home is like a haunted Christmas story.
Lights and decorative signs align the home and a tree still is adorned with red and green ornaments. The garage and windows are boarded up with plywood, covering shattered glass and melted frames.
Nothing has been touched as the investigation into what started the fire continues.
The home's facade is not welcoming, but it doesn’t keep the family away.
They have visited almost every day since the fire to search inside through piles of ash and rubble for anything salvageable.
“It’s a little depressing every single time you come in here,” Melinda said during a recent visit to the house, where she wore a face mask to protect herself from the thick smell of soot. “What was really hard for me was when I came in after the first few days and found notes that say ‘total loss’ posted outside of our old rooms.”
While the family is booked to stay at the hotel until March and are actively looking for another house to move into short term, the goal is to come back to the Dyer townhouse. Will and Melinda plan on living in the home after retiring as a steelworker and radiology technician, respectively.
Nicole said she will have a difficult time returning to the house.
“To me, it’s just never going to feel like home. Even if we redo it and still it’s our house, it will be awkward. I’m still not going to have my cuddle buddy every night,” Nicole said, referring to Toby.
The house’s damage has been estimated at $250,000. Will said contractors have told him the family will be able to move back within the next six to eight months.
Until that happens, the family will live life as normal. They'll still get up and make breakfast before heading to school and work. They'll still catch movies and go out to eat. And they'll still continue to say, "Thank you."
"It's hard to take things from people, but when I look back at it, if this was our friends, we would do the exact same thing," Melinda said. "If people want to help, let them help. It helps you get through it. Even just a 'Hey, I am thinking or praying about you,' has gone a long way."