One man's story about tragedy and help from Lake Villa firemen

Editor's Note: Steve Galat's house was destroyed by fire Jan. 17, 2016, and he's written this story about how Lake Villa Fire Protection District firemen helped his family through that tragedy and how he plans to thank them during this week's Lake Villa Days festival. Galat did not rebuild after the fire and is moving out of state at the end of August.

“Your house is on fire!” were the words of my neighbor on my wife's cellphone as we walked to our car at O'Hare International Airport.

Instantly my wife got very upset and I tried to calm her by telling her it's probably a chimney fire and it will be ok. So many calls of concern came in as we drove home, we finally had to turn off the cellphones. The drive to Lindenhurst seemed to take forever.

As we turned onto Stearns School Road, we could see a glow in the distance. Praying it wasn't from our house, we got hit with an unusual smell — like someone having a wood fire — except it was January. Our hearts raced as the size of the fire started to become reality. The closer we got to home, the more the smell and sounds hit us.

As we turned into the neighborhood we raced to beat a fire truck coming down the road. I could no longer try to act calm — I had to get there. We turned the corner to reality — reality that our lives are now changed forever.

Who has a house fire anymore? Yes, you see the stories on the 10 p.m. news but you never think it's going to be your house. I saw a house trailer on fire once, which is the only fire I can remember. What I saw was not real, it had to be the neighbor's house and I was just seeing things incorrectly, right? The instant we pulled up, my wife and I no longer talked, there were no words, only hope the Lake Villa Fire Protection District could save it.

I think there were four fire trucks, a couple police cars and ambulances strewed throughout the neighborhood, hoses everywhere and people — lots of people. As I got closer I could see our personal items past the broken windows and the charred front door. This giant ladder truck with a big hose remotely controlled at the top of the ladder, spinning and shooting water on my house and my neighbors' houses. The smell was nothing I had ever experienced before ... actually none of this I had experienced before.

I was numb — not from the freezing cold temperatures that surrounded me, but from the reality my house was on fire.

As I walked up, scared to get in the way, I was greeted by neighbors and friends but I kept walking to get a closer look. It was then I was greeted by firemen all working hard to save houses. It was late, about 8 p.m. now, and there was ice, snow, water everywhere. I could see teams of firemen trying to get to the flames. Sounds of a circular saw cutting holes in my home. At the time, I couldn't figure out why they would cut holes in my walls. Didn't they realize I'd have a lot of work to do to fix all of this? Didn't they know how hard it would be fix those holes?

I was greeted by a big fireman named Greg Phillips, who was covered in ice from the water. He greeted me to tell me how sorry he was. He told me the severity of the fire and that my home would be a total loss. He answered every question I had and explained what they struggled with.

When I think of those conversations today, I think about how difficult that has to be, to tell a family their lives will change. Greg has seen so many of these, he's knows how our lives are going to change, how we're going to be impacted and how we're going to feel. I didn't.

For the next several hours, I watched as the firemen worked in freezing cold temperatures, never once leaving the area. At 2:30 a.m., the fire was out. It was so bad they had to cut my living room floor open to flood my basement to put out the last flames.

As I walked around to thank this dedicated group of guys, I would pat them on their backs and watch as ice slide off their coats. They walked like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, they were so frozen. Greg explained they didn't want to come in the house to warm up because it would only make it worse for them. With the temperature now falling to 26 below zero, they struggled to roll up their hoses. They couldn't roll up the hoses like normal because they were so frozen — they called in a pickup truck to come and they just piled the hoses in the best they could.

Slowly these trucks powered down, each man exhausted from the work and the time of day. They had just worked about 10 hours in the freezing cold, putting their lives at risk so my neighbors and I could keep our houses. Yet, each of them, one by one came over to tell me how sorry they were for my loss. They all took a moment to ask about my daughter, who was in the house when the fire started, and to make sure she was OK. These are all people I had never met, yet did so much for my family that night.

Of course you try to go to bed with a thousand memories of the night running through your head. Reality doesn't hit yet, you're still reliving the nightmare. I woke about four hours later to look out the window — only to see that what I thought had happened, did. It was a disaster zone out there — ice formed on everything — trees looked like big icicles, bushes and even my driveway was covered in ice. You could still see the smoldering building. I cannot describe the smell, but it's one that will be with me forever and one I hope I never smell again.

As I walked outside in the silent cold of the morning, I turned to see Phillips standing there. He didn't say a word and didn't have to. He knew what my mind was going through and what I was about to go through moving forward. I cried as I realized everything was gone. Everything. My wife and I had the clothes we had from our trip of two days. My daughter literally ran out of the house with no shoes on her feet, the shirt and sweatpants being her only possessions left.

We lost memories that will never be replaced — only to be in our minds. Pictures, diplomas, high school letterman jackets, kids paintings from grade school — all those memories you keep for when your kids grow up ... gone. Gone is the home my kids grew up in, a place they remember having birthday parties and friends over, where they took their first steps to the school bus, the porch we took their school pictures on each year. All gone in a matter of hours.

Yet Greg stood there, silent when he should have been, and informative when I needed to know why.

Here is what I learned — the Lake Villa Fire Protection District is a force filled with volunteer firefighters. These guys do this because they like the work but they also have other jobs as well. As a volunteer, they don't do this full time and so when they left my home at 2:30 a.m., they had to rush home to get some sleep before they went to their day-to-day jobs that next morning. Almost like they were never out fighting a big house fire until 2:30 a.m.

I was shocked when Greg told me that. He too had switched his work around so he could take another shift and investigate my fire, which is why he was there that morning. As we walked around my house to get a better view of the devastation, a truck pulled up. It was another firefighter who had been out there. He had slipped on some aluminum that had fallen from my house. His leg skirting out like it was on a ski in the snow. I saw him his knee was so swelled that he could hardly get his pants on, much less drive a car, but he was there to see the house in the daylight and check on my family. He didn't tell me about his knee and what happened. He asked me how I was doing, was my daughter OK, did I call the insurance company, and asked all the right questions to make me feel better.

Greg told me the story of how he got hurt that night and the fact he would have to get an MRI to see if he needed surgery. He also added that because he has a “regular” job, work may be a bit difficult for a while.

I never thought I'd ever have a house fire but as State Farm put it, “people make mistakes and that is why we have insurance.” We made a mistake.

Insurance people told me the top reasons why they have house fires is fireplace or fire pit errors. Learn from us, don't leave them unattended and ashes stay hot for a long, long time. Our fire was much worse due to the cold and the strong winds that night. Those winds blew and made the fire much worse. Greg told me that had the wind not been that strong or maybe blowing in a different direction, I may just be replacing my deck.

There is no way I could ever repay all the neighbors and friends who stood by our side through all of this. One neighbor lady who I never really knew very well stood out there in the 26-below temperatures with me and made sure I had blankets and jackets to keep me warm. People gave us clothes, donations and offers to do anything that is needed. The Lindenhurst Police department kept vigil on the smoldering ruins and kept the gawkers away — all the officers waving and asking if we are OK. You can't repay that kind of stuff, but only know that when it's their turn, you're there for them as well.

The reason for my story is I took the fire department for granted. My kids loved to see them at the parades because the trucks are cool. Trust me, you only want to see those trucks in a parade but when they are in front of your house — the guys inside them become cool. You don't plan for fires, they are unexpected, which is why I guess we have our fire departments. I've always been a guy who waves during the parade and moves on. I drive by the fire houses all the time and don't think anything of them.

Not anymore. These guys are volunteers — doing it because they like that work. They work to help us, those who just wave during the parades. They work to save our memories, our families and the things we love. They work so we can sleep at night and wake up in the morning. It sounds silly to say this, but they are my heroes.

My family lost everything in the fire, but the point is these guys didn't give up. They fought during the worst weather Chicago could throw at them, they worked through personal injury, and yet they all still care enough to keep going. You will never realize any of this until you experience a house fire, which I hope you will never do.

This weekend is Lake Villa Days, a time when everyone gathers to have fun. I've been going there each year for a long time. We go for the good bands, the cold beers and to see friends and have a great night.

This year, I will go for a different reason. The event is sponsored by the Lake Villa Firefighters Association and I'm going to honor the firemen. I'm going to thank every one of these guys I can find. I'm going to find Greg Phillips and thank him along with all the guys who worked so hard to help my family. The guys who work around the clock to make us safe, put their lives at risk and have golden hearts.

Sadly I don't know any of these guys by name, my mind was too numb to remember, but I hope they all know how much their efforts meant to me and my family.

I hope that after reading this, you too will go for a different reason. Please take a moment to thank a firefighter if you see them at Lake Villa Days. They are some very special and talented people who deserve more recognition than a wave during a parade.

They are our heroes ... trust me.

Lake Villa Days festival begins today

Lake Villa Fire Protection District fireman Greg Phillips takes photos of Steve Galat's Lindenhurst home after it was destroyed by fire in January. Galat said Phillips and other firefighters are his heroes for how they helped his family after the fire. Courtesy of Steve Galat
Crews demolish Steve Galat's Lindenhurst house after it was destroyed by fire in January. Galat said he did not rebuild after the fire and is moving out of state in August. Courtesy of Steve Galat
Steve Galat and his wife Kathy with their children, Allison, 24, and Richard, 20. Steve plans to thank the firefighters who helped his family at this year's Lake Villa Days festival, which takes place Aug. 4-7. Courtesy of Steve Galat
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