VERMILION — Even in a town with a reputation of helping out its neighbors, the past week has been a hard one for Vermilion and Wakeman residents.
Two families lost everything but their lives within hours of each other — one in a freak explosion and another in an early morning fire.
And within days one of the city’s most prominent families lost one of their own, in the midst of helping collect donations for another family.
There has been extensive media coverage of the early morning disaster that destroyed the Darrow Road home of Jen and Tracy Haslage. At 3:30 a.m. Jan. 31, an SUV left the road and struck the two-story home, hitting its gas meter.
The Haslages heard the whoosh of escaping gas, grabbed their dogs and ran outside just before the home exploded.
The driver, later identified as Kenneth Karnow, ran off and later was found sleeping in a closet of a vacant nearby home. He faces multiple charges. Members of the Haslage family have made many social media posts and have been in the media, asking for donations for the family.
Within hours of the explosion, another home on Harrison Road in Wakeman caught fire.
Homeowner Leah Szarka was home alone with her three children — a kindergartener, a first-grader and a 2-year-old — and getting ready to drink her morning coffee when she noticed smoke.
“I was watching the live news coverage of the house explosion as there was a fire brewing in my garage,” she said. “I bundled up the kids and got out.”
Szarka and her husband, Alex, had just marked the first anniversary of living in the home. They moved there from North Olmsted so that Leah could raise chickens and ducks, keep bees, plant a garden and raise their kids in the country.
One year and four days after moving in, she watched it go up in smoke. But in the immediate aftermath, she is counting her blessings.
“While the house was still burning, Red Cross was on site, giving us money for clothes and stuff. People are just coming out the woodwork and I can’t keep up with it. We’re just so thankful,” she said, while admitting nothing is likely salvageable from the home.
The couple’s cars were undamaged, but even things in the house that they thought they could save they discovered were “basically considered to be covered in carcinogens” from smoke.
“I kept thinking I can grab my new moisturizer or my toothbrush, but we have nothing until Hazmat comes in and does smoke remediation,” she said. “The Red Cross gave us a couple weeks’ worth of clothes we can recycle. We’re not flashy people, we don’t need 20 million outfits.”
The couple has been told it will take up to six months to rebuild.
“It will have to be taken down to the studs,” she said.
They consider themselves lucky that they have temporary lodgings with Alex’s parents in Westlake, but they need to find a home to rent closer to their current home to be able to keep the boys in school at Vermilion Elementary and to tend to their 21 chickens and nine ducks on the property.
The animals are in coops on the property surrounded by a small electric fence so they can be allowed out to range two to three times a day but be protected from coyotes and such.
Inspectors are determining the source of the fire, which appears to have started in the back of the attached garage near the rafters in a storage area.
While the Szarkas were making emergency arrangements, Leah’s beloved grandmother suffered a heart attack. She was in an Akron hospital where Leah planned to visit her after meeting with more inspectors and insurance adjusters when word came that her grandmother had passed.
Though the Szarka family did not solicit donations, their church, Church of the Open Door’s Vermilion campus, is accepting donations for the family. Gift cards or items can be brought to the church at 1230 Beechview Drive, on Thursdays and Sundays.
The family could use boys clothing, sizes 8/9 husky pants; size 10/12 slim pants and shoes sizes 2 and 3.5, as well as boys underwear, socks, pajamas, jeans, athletic pants, basic tee-shirts, robes, hoodies, and rain boots. They also need girls’ clothing, sizes 3T and 4T, size 8 shoes, and pajamas, pants, shirts, dresses/skirts, socks, hair accessories, and winter/rain boots.
The children lost all their toys, too. The boys love art, drawing and painting, board games, drawing pads, and Legos, Mario, Captain Underpants, Batman, Minecraft, Pokemon and Star Wars toys. The toddler girl loves drawing, coloring, watercoloring and books, play kitchens and pretend food, Dora, Masha and the Bear and “is obsessed with Peppa Pig!” books.
The family could also use gift cards for gas as they travel back and forth and to purchase necessary items.
“Anything left over that we do not use will be donated back to the Red Cross, as they cover such a large area,” Leah said.
After the Darrow Road explosion, prominent area businessman Cliff German offered to open his banquet hall, German’s Villa on the city’s east end, as a collection/donation drop-off spot for the Haslage family. A benefit spaghetti dinner is being held there this weekend.
Within a day of that announcement, German — who is known around town as “The Voice of Vermilion” because of his extensive work as the announcer for festivals, parades, and Vermilion Schools’ athletic events — lost his own son.
Mike German, the youngest of Cliff and Nancy German’s three children, suffered a massive heart attack Saturday morning and was rushed to the hospital in Amherst, where he lived with his wife, Nikki, and three children.
He passed away at the hospital. He was 37, healthy, active, and a loving son and father, say those who knew him.
The 1999 Vermilion High School graduate worked as a union electrician and was active in coaching his daughters, Dani, 14, and Sienna, 12, and his stepson Mason, 18.
Mike was very close to his parents and was actually at German’s Villa the night before for the “Friday night feasts” that typically start up this time of year, said a longtime employee.
Like his dad — who often sponsors fund raisers for city residents who are battling cancer or raising money to rebuild a home or for a charity — Mike German was committed to helping others in his town as well, coaching soccer in Amherst, said his sister-in-law Holly German. She is married to John German, Mike’s brother.
“Cliff is constantly doing anything he can do to help anybody, and Mikey was just like that,” she said.
So often, that help came by opening the doors of the family’s iconic banquet hall. It opened in 1984, when Mike was just 3.
Now the family business will be used for something entirely different.
Mike’s calling hours will be there, from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, with the funeral service there at 11 a.m. Friday.
“Mikey died on Cliff’s 70th birthday. He’s taking it so hard,” Holly German said.
The family has planned no fund raisers for Mike’s family but an account has been set up at Northwest Bank in Vermilion for his children’s college funds. To donate, make out checks to Leah Newbill, Mike’s sister, for the account of: Mike German Family College Fund.
“Right now we’re just trying to set the future up for Mikey’s kids,” Holly German said.
German’s Villa is at 3330 Liberty Ave., Vermilion. For information, call (440) 967-1770. Northwest Bank is at 4455 E. Liberty Ave., Vermilion. For information, call (440) 967-3124.
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