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Niagara Falls
Wednesday, March 29, 2023
NOTL community rallies together for family after fire destroys their home

Rachel Spiewak and her boyfriend Jay didn’t know when they climbed into bed Saturday night that it would be the last time they’d ever sleep in it.

Sometime around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday Sept. 16, a fire broke out in the garage of their Virgil home while they slept. The flames ate through the walls, collapsing the lives they’d built with loud bangs.

If it wasn’t for their dog Tucker starting to bark wildly, Spiewak doesn’t know what might have been the outcome for her, Jay and their two children who were in the house.

“I heard a bang, and Tucker was growling at things … I was like ‘shh, don’t wake the baby,’ and then I think five to ten minutes later maybe I heard real big bang and Tucker was losing it. He was barking, growling, pacing around the room, up on the bed. So I woke up Jay. I’m like ‘Jay something’s wrong, you need to get up and see what’s going on.”

Jay opened the bedroom door and the room “lit up bright,” Spiewak said.

“(He’s) like, ‘the house is on fire, you need to get the baby out.’”

By then the fire had consumed their garage, spread to the vehicles in the driveway and was coming into the house — all without a smoke alarm going off. The fire wasn’t breathing smoke into the house yet.

The next few minutes were a whirlwind as the couple ran for the children (luckily two of them weren’t home) and scrambled to get out.

“There were people out in the street already, yelling “get out of that house! Get out of that house!” Spiewak said.

“By the time it lit up and got into the house, it was just an inferno.”

Luckily the entire family made it out, along with Tucker.

After finding some clothes to wear, Spiewak watched from a neighbour’s house as almost everything they had was reduced to ashes — clothes, cribs, childhood photos, cherished items, school work; it all went up in flames, despite the best efforts of firefighters from all five of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s departments, who miraculously managed to stop the fire from completely destroying the neighbouring residences.

Later that morning another fire started within the town, and is still burning strong — only this fire’s fuel is compassion.

Local residents have banded together to help the family recover from the tragedy. The support has been pouring in, said Spiewak, during a sit down with a reporter and some of her close friends on Tuesday. 

For someone whose life was just turned upside down, Spiewak has a forward-looking attitude, largely due to the outpouring of support offered by a long list of community members. There are many people she’s grateful to.

The McShane family has offered out one of their furnished rental homes to the family while they figure out the next steps. And even though the house is supposed to be animal-free, Tucker was of course allowed to come along.

Niagara Motors has rented a vehicle for the family, and numerous other businesses have come to their aid, including Phil’s Valu-Mart, Silks Country Kitchen and the Sandtrap.

It won’t be easy, Spiewak said, but she’s looking forward and staying postive.

“It’s hard not to be positive when you have so much coming at you in such a positive manner — you literally have people, like Megan and Terry (two close friends), wrapping their arms around you saying ‘we got you, we’re getting you through this.’”

Spiewak said she would like to thank the entire community for their support.

“I personally want to thank my parents and family, Megan and John Vanderlee, Terri Andrusiw, Angela Porpiglia and Zenon Konopka. Of course, all of the Ann-Marie Drive neighbours who set up a command, clothed us and put shoes on our feet in our moment of need.”

Zenon Konopka, a longtime friend of Spiewak’s, said “from the outside looking in, it’s been obviously a horrible situation … but now they’re turning the page on trying to see how this is a positive — how the town has come together, how they don’t take things for granted with their kids.”

Another positive to look at, is that the houses beside it didn’t burn down as well, thanks to the efforts of NOTL’s volunteer firefighters who worked to ensure the blaze was controlled.

“It’s unbelievable how a house can burn like that and not catch. It was so lucky that it wasn’t windy,” Konopka said. “And those are the good parts.”

Konopka said he can replace at least one thing — something one of her sons was “pretty banged up about” he said — Spiewak’s son had a signed Konopka hockey stick, one he used in the NHL.

Konopka said he’s going to replace it with one of the last three he has.

And then there’s Tucker, who nobody has forgotten about either — Sweet and Swirls Cafe had a donation box out for the family — and asked people to buy him a steak and cheese sandwich.

As well, piles of donations have been sent to their temporary home and to Spiewak’s parents’ house on Hunter Road.

As of press time, a GoFundMe page had also raised more than $3,600 in three days with donations from 58 people.

The Fire Marshal investigation concluded the cause of the fire is undetermined, Spiewak said. The house was simply too far gone for a forensic investigation.

The family would like to thank the NOTL Fire Department, Victim Service Niagara, The McShane family, Dave Dick Jr. at Niagara Motors, Phil and Shannon Leboudec of Phil’s Valu-Mart, Silks Country Kitchen, Paul and Natasha Dietsch of The Sandtrap, NOTL Pet-Valu, Martin and Rita Mazza  of Italian Pizza and Subs, Paul Davis Systems of Niagara, Shoppers Drug Mart of NOTL and Hartzel Road, Bliss Salon, Skycraft Hobbies, NOTL Dart League, Lord Mayor Pat Darte, the Brownies, The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 124, The Olde Angel Inn, St. Michael’s School and a long list of others, which one could be forgiven for forgetting during such a time.

Going forward, one thing Spiewak said she and Jay will be strongly advocating for is that laws be changed to require smoke detectors in garages, to prevent something similar from happening to another family who may not be as lucky as them.

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