Blaze met with determination and community support
A man-made disaster, which could potentially have had a very tragic end
ing, has instead become an extraordinary recovery effort by one local family, one day and one battle at a time.
The saga of the Brown family’s plight began in the early morning hours of Thursday, Oct. 22 at their home at 1900 E. First St., Merrill.
“Our son had four friends over for a college tour the next morning at UW-Milwaukee,” explains Joe Brown. “To this day I still can’t say exactly what time it was that I woke up, I just remember it was close to 3 a.m. But what woke me was this repetitive….loud noise. My first thought was the boys were throwing things around down in the basement. It sounded like something bouncing off the heating duct! I was pretty ornery with them making so much noise that early in the morning, so I got out of bed to go holler at them and tell them to quiet down.”
As Joe Brown would soon realize, the teenagers being responsible for the noise would have been an absolute best case scenario.
“It was when I stepped out of the room I could smell smoke and see a bright light. Then when I turned the corner I could see the flames and suddenly heard glass breaking…..I’ll never forget that, ever…” he adds with a slight shake of his head. “So I turned around and started screaming for everyone to get out! I knew we didn’t have long and was already starting to feel the heat of the fire. While everyone was running downstairs I called 911, got the kids up and started opening doors. We gathered in the front yard for a bit until we realized how big the fire was getting, then we moved across the street.”
Joe and Michelle Brown, their two teenage children, Ben (17) and Cherish (18), and Ben’s four friends found themselves not only outside on a chilly late-October morning, but left with only what they had worn to bed the night before.
“Everyone was in their pajamas and the boys were standing out there in their underwear. That’s how fast we got out of the house, we had nothing but what we had on, we didn’t really have time to grab anything else. Neighbors brought blankets for the boys and brought me a pair of socks and a pair of crocs, which I ended up wearing for the next few days.”
Within a matter of minutes, crews were on-scene but the family’s abode was already engulfed in flames. “One fireman told us we were pretty lucky to get out when we did. He said we had about three minutes before we would have been trapped inside.”
While watching crews fight the blaze, Brown admits he was in shock and disbelief.
“I remember watching them fight the fire and these huge 20-foot flames spewing out of the house. But I also had this belief they would get it under control, and we would be able to salvage at least part of the house and maybe some of our possessions.”
It was then, a nearby fireman’s attempt at consolation, helped Brown come to terms with the sight before him.
“One of the firemen asked about what I had in the garage. I remember explaining to him about the cars I had in there, propane tanks, my ATV and so on. While I was talking to him, I literally watched as the roof of my shop caved in and these huge fire balls began falling from the ceiling. It was then the fireman told me I should go and start taking care of things. He told me there was no sense for me to stand there and watch everything we had burn down. He was right. At that point I knew we had to face reality, everything was a total loss. It just didn’t seem real at first, but seeing the roof cave in and the fireman’s words were my reality check I guess.”
Due to the generosity and helpful hands of neighbors Doug and Kathy Ponzer, the family was able to take refuge for the day.
That Friday morning, Joe and Michelle were informed by investigators of the fire being suspicious.
“They told us they suspected it was an arson fire. They believed the fire to be related to a recent car fire and reported car entries the same night, which was only about a block away. Once again I was in disbelief and just couldn’t bring myself to believe someone – anyone – would do that. Who would light a house on fire with a family inside? I hoped they were wrong.”
On the brighter side, the family received a bit of good news later that morning when they first met with an insurance company representative, and were given a check for living expenses.
“It was nice to get the check so soon, it was a start.” Joe adds.
Unfortunately, the good news would be short-lived and the family would soon find themselves fighting another battle, along with the fight to re-build their life.
While hashing out differences with their insurance company, the immediate aftermath would continue to get worse for the Brown family.
They were immediately contacted by billing companies regarding damaged equipment and were unable to make any attempt to salvage anything in their former home due to ongoing investigations.
“We couldn’t even get keys made for our vehicles, due to not having proof of ownership. We couldn’t enter the house to try and find our keys or anything to prove ownership, due to the investigations in progress. After a week, whatever may have been salvageable was lost due to exposure to ash, the elements and so on.”
Finally, by early November things began to look brighter for the Browns.
Although still locked in dispute with the insurance company, the family had suddenly received a continuous and unexpected outpouring of support from the community, and had managed to find a rental home.
“We found a rental home behind Les and Jim’s which was fantastic. We had been staying in a hotel since a few days after the fire, so it was nice to have our own place again. It was our first step to rebuilding.
“But even getting that far wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity and support from the community. We just had people coming out of the woodwork to come to our rescue and help us start over. From the Merrill Police and Fire Departments to organizations, businesses and people from around the community and even other communities….wow….it was just overwhelming. We didn’t even know many of the people’s names. I can’t even begin to express how appreciative we are for their generosity and support!”
Tragedy struck yet again on the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 10 when Joe Brown found himself engaged in a battle for his life. The couple rushed to Ministry-Good Samaritan Health Center where it was confirmed Joe was in the midst of a heart attack. He was soon transported to Ministry-St. Clares Hospital in Weston and underwent a heart catheter procedure on Wednesday morning.
“The doctors felt the heart attack was related in part to the stress of everything. I mean yeah there was obviously a blockage already, but the stress sure didn’t help,” he adds with a chuckle.
Joe Brown appears light hearted and in good spirits, but states the family is still battling the insurance company and a nationwide cable television provider. However on the bright side, his health is much improved.
“As for me, I’m getting better one day at a time,” he adds with a smile.
On the morning of Tuesday, Oct, 27 officers of the Merrill Police Department made an arrest in connection with the Brown’s arson fire. However as of press time the Merrill Police Department has not released any further information due to the ongoing investigation.
“I was already on my way down to the police department for a meeting and when I showed up, they took me aside and told me they had made an arrest,” Brown explains.
Brown was anything but relieved.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I couldn’t believe someone was capable of lighting someone’s house on fire while they were still in it. I never wanted to believe it. I hoped they would actually find out it wasn’t someone who set the fire and the fire was caused by something else. I think the only relief I felt, was to an extent, the public was informed.”
In closing, Joe Brown and his family would like to once again thank the many people, organizations, and businesses who assisted and supported them in their effort to recover from the catastrophic blaze.