There’s no place like home. Dorothy said it in “The Wizard of Oz” and the Garcias of Wantagh are saying it, too.
A fire last year forced three members of the family to flee through windows, but after a year of rebuilding, they are back in their long-time home. “It feels great,” Jean Garcia said, sitting at her dining room table with her husband, Ed. “We couldn’t wait.”
The fire started in a closet of a downstairs bedroom, which was being used as an office, at 1231 Hawthorne Drive West on July 5, 2013, at about 11:30 p.m. Jean and Ed were in their upstairs bedroom when they heard a smoke alarm go off. Ed, thinking it was just a dead battery, went to investigate and discovered smoke billowing up the stairs.
He went to get his wife, who had knee surgery just three weeks prior. But they were unable to make it down. “You could see flames coming up the staircase,” Ed said, “so that wasn’t going to be an exit point.”
They popped out a screen and made it onto a lower roof. Their youngest son, Tom, who escaped through a basement window, and a neighbor grabbed a ladder in the backyard and set it against the house. By then, firefighters arrived and helped Jean and Ed to safety. They were transported to the hospital for smoke inhalation.
While the fire was mostly contained to the one room in the back corner, the hallway and attic above, smoke and water damaged the rest of the house. The rebuilding process began and by December, work was underway.
On July 12, one year and one week after the fire, they moved back in.
“Everything is still in the same place,” Ed said, noting that the layout of the house remained the same, but just about everything else is knew. The walls were ripped down to the studs, the floors and ceilings were torn out.
The house has all new electric and plumbing. The windows, siding and roof are all new. Parts of the frame has to replaced in the area where the fire burned. A new central air conditioning system was installed. It was a big job, the Garcias noted.
They will never forget the look of the house immediately after the fire, and the sadness they felt in losing their home of 35 years. They were determined to rebuild, because the house meant so much to them. “All of our children came home here from the hospital,” Ed said.
Immediately after their fire, they stayed with their son, Robbie, at his house in Levittown. Then they were on to their daughter Kristen’s house in Massapequa for a few days before renting a house in Levittown.
Their temporary quarters was a small Levitt house with just one bathroom and no basement, not quite what they were used to, but it did the job. “It was some place to go for the year,” Jean said. “We were just glad to have it.”
The Garcias were warmed by the outpouring of support they received after the fire. Neighbors brought over food. Their mechanic provided a full meal. People donated furniture for their temporary house, some of which has come with them to Hawthorne Drive. “People we hardly knew were sending us gift cards,” Jean said.
Many pictures were lost in the fire, so their oldest son tracked down photos from relatives and put a book together for them.
They did lose their dog, who hid under the bed during the fire. Firefighters were able to save it, but it succumbed to smoke inhalation after a few days.
There were some challenges along the way. Eight banks turned them down for a home equity loan because the damage. Permits had to be secured from the town for the construction and there is always a wait for that insurance check.
But they persevered because they had only one goal in mind — going home.
No cause was ever determined, though it was ruled accidental. The Garcias suspect a battery in a dust buster that was in the closet but will never know. Their son, who will be a junior at Binghamton University in the fall, relocated to the bedroom where the fire started.
Ed and Jean admit that while they were glad to be home, that first night back was a bit-nerve wracking. “It felt good,” Ed said, “but we were listening for any signs of trouble.”
The Garcias bought their house three years after they got married. Jean was raised in the Bronx, Ed in Central Islip. They settled on Wantagh to raise their family and never regretted their decision.
A fire is not something they ever expected to happen, Jean said, and they are glad the ordeal is in the past. They plan to stay in their home for the long haul which, after months of renovations, is like new again.
“I really just wanted to come back to my home,” Jean said. “We love the neighborhood.”