Sep. 8—Shortly after midnight Wednesday, Stephanie Wahl was still awake inside a first-floor bedroom of her residence in the 500 block of West Jefferson Street.
With her 6-year-old son, William, by her side and her other two boys — Spencer, 10, and Daniel, 8 — upstairs in their rooms, Wahl said she initially heard what sounded like a "boom."
Then, the window next to where she was lying lit up bright red.
Around that same time, there was a knock at the door, Wahl recalled, an unknown man alerting her that a neighboring house — which was vacant — was on fire, and the flames were starting to affect Wahl's house as well.
Wahl quickly yelled for her two older sons, who were already running down the stairs at that point, and the four were able to safely make it out of their house by the time firefighters arrived on scene.
And though officials were able to battle the blaze that ended up spreading to her residence, Wahl believes her house — and the contents in it — is a total loss at this point.
Late Wednesday morning, Wahl spoke to the Tribune as she began the act of salvaging what was left inside her residence, and she said the overall scene was heartbreaking.
But Wahl also took a few moments of that time to address how the community has already embraced her family, just hours after nearly losing everything.
"The community support is honestly the only thing that is getting me through this," she said, referring to countless messages of hope directed at her through Facebook. "I've been through a lot the past few years. I lost my dad, and there are things inside there of his that are irreplaceable. ... But the things that can be replaced, the community has made it better for me."
Along with those Facebook messages, a friend set up a GoFundMe page for the family, and it was already close to surpassing its $5,000 goal by mid-Wednesday afternoon.
"Love you all," one donator noted in her message to Wahl. "Prayers for your family. Sending all the hugs! You're an amazing mother to those boys and with family and friends by your side you'll make it through this and come out even stronger in the end."
"Steph, I'm heartbroken for you. Please take things one minute at a time. ... I cannot even imagine. My heart hurts for you," another supporter stated in part.
The English Rose Café and Tea Room next door to Wahl also pitched in to help the family out.
"I want a good word put in for those people," Wahl said. "They offered for me to stay there even when they have tenants coming there in a week. And they are also watching my cat right now. They've been so kind, and I really like them. ... And the neighbors all around have helped in some form, whether it's giving us blankets or giving us snacks or whatever. Everyone around here has really wanted to help us out."
Because stepping up to help others in times of crisis is what a community should do, neighbor Teresa Gascho said.
Gascho has lived a few houses down from Wahl's residence for around 10 years now, and she was checking in on the family Wednesday morning when she also stopped to speak to the Tribune about the incident.
"It was vacant," Gascho said, referring to the house that originally caught fire. "It's been vacant for at least 10 years I'd say, long as I've lived here. They were going to remodel it at one point, but that was about three or four years ago, and nothing happened to it after that.
"But I was upstairs in bed, and I heard a loud noise," Gascho added. "All of a sudden, my bedroom lit up, and I jumped out of bed to see that the vacant house was fully engulfed. I called 911 and ran down the stairs to see that they (the Wahl family) were already getting out of their house next door. ... But that fire was hot, and it was fast. ... And I just thank God that everyone was ok."
According to a Kokomo Fire Department report, the fire in the vacant house just west of Wahl's broke out around 12:24 a.m.
When first responders arrived on scene, the house was already fully engulfed on both the first and second floors, as well as the attic, the report noted.
The heat and flames then affected the west side of Wahl's residence, the report indicated, climbing up that wall and then into the eaves in the attic area.
Along with the vacant property and Wahl's residence, there were also three other nearby homes that were affected during Wednesday morning's incident, though fire officials stated that each of those three only sustained exterior heat damage.
The cause of the initial fire is still under investigation.
Kim Dunlap can be reached at 765-860-3256 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.