"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
Installation crew from Renewal by Andersen of Chicago faces down inferno to save man from raging house fire
When you ask most our homeowners what makes Renewal by Andersen Signature Service so special, you hear lots of answers… “our installers were professional, courteous, and left my house spotless”…“the crew took the time to answer all of our questions—and even made friends with our dogs!”…“before they left, they went out of their way to fix a lock on our front door that I had no clue how to fix” … “so respectful of my home and property! They took their shoes off in the house, and treated everything with utmost care.”
But if you ask Kelly Kole of Lake Barrington, IL… she’ll tell you “[they] are true heroes.”
And if you ask her neighbor, Mike Walsh? He’ll tell you “they saved my life.”
Wednesday morning, April 11, a team of installers from Renewal by Andersen of Chicago (Jose Ramos, Arnulfo Vargas, and crew chief Leo Zavalza), arrived at Kole’s townhome and started work on what should have been a fairly standard job of replacing several sets of glider windows.
At the same time, a fire had started somewhere in the garage of Mike Walsh and Ellen Murray, whose house is behind Kole’s, across their tree-lined lot.
Murray had already left for work. But Walsh, who was at home following a recent shoulder surgery, was just getting up and about to hop in the shower and head off to a physical therapy appointment. With both the bedroom and bathroom doors closed, and no one else home, he had no idea that flames were rapidly spreading through the lower level.
Says Walsh’s adult daughter Krissy Walsh, “I was actually driving by my dad’s neighborhood, on the way to pick up my mother at Midway [Airport]. I noticed the smoke way back in the back of the neighborhood, and thought—or hoped?— ‘oh, they must be doing a controlled burn.”
Just then, the fire trucks raced by…and Krissy’s phone rang. It was her stepmother. “As soon as I heard her voice, I knew where the trucks were going. She was hysterical—saying something about how there was a fire, and dad had to jump off the roof, and… I whipped a U-turn, called my mom and told her she needed to get an Uber, and raced toward my dad’s.”
By the time she got there, flames were pouring from the house and fire crews were at work trying to control the blaze. She found her father out front with the first responders, sooty and barefoot and being treated for smoke inhalation (he was eventually transported to the hospital, where he received further treatment, and was released)—but, remarkably, otherwise relatively unscathed.
Mike Walsh was in the master bath when he heard loud pounding. Thinking it was something going on in the adjacent townhome, he ignored it at first.
The pounding continued, so he dressed hastily, exited the bathroom, went through the bedroom and threw open the door to look downstairs and see who was at the front door—only to realize that the rest of the house was filled with thick, black smoke, and he couldn’t even SEE to the front door, let alone get to it.
He tried to cover his face with a pillow so he could escape, but realized he wasn’t going to make it out that way. “It was like being in outer space,” he explained later. “It was completely dark. There was just no air.”
Retreating to his bedroom, Walsh shut the door, pried the screen off of his window and climbed out onto the ledge below, wondering if he was going to have to jump from the second floor to escape. Based on the knocking, he figured that someone was down below somewhere, but whether they would be able to help, he had no idea. “I just went out the window and started screaming for help,” he says.
As it turns out, there was someone down there—and, serendipitously, those “someones” were Zavalza, Vargas, and Ramos…and a ladder.
“We had a window out on the job we were working on, and were getting ready to put the new one into place when one of my guys said he smelled smoke and then we saw the flames,” says Zavalza. “I just thought—we’ve got to make sure no one is in there.”
The crew grabbed the ladder and ran through the Kole’s back yard, over to Walsh’s, where they began pounding frantically to alert whoever might be in the home. “We had realized that someone was inside by then…but we didn’t know where they were,” Zavalza continues.
Eventually, they broke a window of a second floor bedroom, thinking that was where Walsh may have been trapped. They then heard his shouts for help coming from a different bedroom. Climbing down, they spotted him on the roof and were able to get him down safely using their ladder. “When we were getting him down, I thought, ‘If he waits any longer to try and get out, there would have been flames coming out of that window.’ And sure enough, about 45 seconds…that’s exactly what happened,” says Zavalza.
With everyone safe on the ground, fire crews worked at putting out the blaze. EMTs attended to Mike Walsh. Krissy and Mike’s wife Ellen began to piece details together about what had happened.
And Zavalza and his crew? They beat an anonymous retreat back to the Kole’s and resumed their work—and even then, they were taking care of people. Says Kole, “[When they came back], they realized smoke was filling our house and quickly installed the one window that was out so that our home would not smell of smoke.”
Because pulling out windows—even for a brief period of time—would mean exposing the interior of Kole’s home with smoke that was still roiling from the fire, the installation was postponed. So that, as Kole says, “when they came back to install the other windows it’s just another normal installation for them!”
Zavalza and crew were content to stay anonymous. “It was the case of being in the right place at the right time. I don’t know about being a hero… I think anybody in their right mind would do the same thing, you know? We wanted to help,” he says.
But thanks to an online review by Kole and then Krissy Walsh sharing a photo of Zavalza and Ramos on Facebook and tracking them down via social media, the crew’s “encore career” as rescuers came to light.
On the Friday following the blaze, Mike Walsh returned to what remained of his home and met for the first time the men who saved his life.
In an emotional moment, Walsh shook hands and embraced each of the crew. “All I can say, is, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I owe you, man.” he said. “Without you, I wouldn’t be here.”
Says neighbor Kole in an online review for her installation crew, “These men are true heroes and shows the quality of the people that Renewal by Andersen work with.”
Krissy Walsh agrees. “I can’t even begin to imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t happened to have been working nearby. Or if they hadn’t dropped everything and run to help,” she says. “If they hadn’t been there to warn my dad…he would have gotten in to the shower and never have known the danger. It would have been too late. As far as I’m concerned, they saved his life. They are true angels.”
Ed. Note: The fire was so severe that nine fire departments from surrounding areas responded to assist in extinguishing the blaze. The home was a total loss. A YouCaring page has been set up to help the family in the immediate aftermath. Mike and Ellen's YouCaring Page