Montgomery resident recalls her "Christmas miracle."
By: Kara Fitzpatrick
MONTGOMERY It took five minutes, quick thinking, a scavenged ladder and a borrowed sports utility vehicle to save Michelle Herwald’s life.
Oh, yes, and a Christmas miracle.
The story of Ms. Herwald’s rescue from a fire that broke out in her Shinnecock Hills Court home Dec. 25 has left the community awed and Ms. Herwald deeply grateful.
Her holiday, which began quietly, ended in chaos.
"Since we had moved into the house in September, I had been doing a lot of painting and remodeling," said Ms. Herwald, a 38-year-old divorced native of the Midwest who lives with her 10-year-old son, Zach.
Zach had gone to visit with his father for the Christmas holiday, and Ms. Herwald decided to get some work done on the house.
"I had been up late Christmas Eve painting," she recalled.
Her memory becomes foggy shortly after waking up on Christmas morning.
"I called my boyfriend and said I was going to lay back down," she said. She was planning to spend the latter part of the day with him.
She fell back asleep as children everywhere were relishing their gifts from Santa.
"I didn’t hear anything," she said.
When Ms. Herwald awoke, she may as well have been in a dream. Or, rather, a nightmare.
An unattended candle accidentally left burning downstairs had ignited a couch while she was napping.
"I remember I had candles lit for the holidays. I was trying to stay in the spirit even though my son wasn’t there," Ms. Herwald said.
Her two-story home suddenly was ablaze.
"My recollection is just not being able to see anything," when she discovered she wasn’t dreaming.
"I sort of remember falling to the ground, kind of like they teach you to do," she said. "I couldn’t see anything, but I could tell the temperature was hot."
With smoke filling the room, Ms. Herwald said she began to panic.
"I remember almost running around in circles," she said.
In the midst of her confusion, she was able to locate a window.
"Thank God the window was not locked, because I honestly don’t think I would have been able to unlock it," she said.
Frantically pulling the window open for a gasp of air, Ms. Herwald looked outside the home and saw no one.
The first person to arrive, Ms. Herwald remembers fuzzily, was a neighbor walking a dog.
"I remember talking to someone, telling them how scared I was and that it was getting hotter," she said.
It was about 11:30 a.m. when an emergency call rang at Montgomery Township Police headquarters.
Bill Spohn, a township Fire Company No. 1 volunteer, happened to be at his parents’ house off Cherry Valley Road for the holiday when his pager sounded, alerting him to the fire. And although it was against typical operating procedure, he went directly to the nearby residence in the interest of saving time, instead of driving to the firehouse.
Immediately after Mr. Spohn’s arrival, Montgomery police officer Andrew Perry pulled up. And in the seconds following, Montgomery Emergency Medical Services volunteer Rick Kozaryn arrived as well as. Neshanic Station Firehouse volunteer Charles Davis IV, who was driving nearby with his parents, also stopped to assist.
Mr. Spohn scavenged a ladder from a neighboring garage, but in a few frantic seconds found that it was not long enough to reach the window. But the men quickly hit on a makeshift solution, pulling Mr. Davis’ SUV below the window and placing the ladder on top.
Mr. Kozaryn then climbed the ladder to retrieve Ms. Herwald.
"Rick got me out of the window. When I close my eyes, I can still see him," she said.
Fire trucks were just about a minute away when Ms. Herwald was pulled from the flames, Mr. Spohn said.
Those present say that minute could have been the difference between life and death.
After the rescue, she was taken to University Medical Center at Princeton and later to St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston with first- and second-degree burns. She is now at her parents’ home in Iowa continuing her recovery.
The interior of her charred house is being repaired and Ms. Herwald said she plans to return to New Jersey sometime in March to resume her position at Bristol-Myers Squibb.
And, she said, she is steadily improving. When the time comes to leave the care of her family, she will move into temporary quarters in the area until work on her house is complete.
Ms. Herwald admits it will not be easy to return to Shinnecock Hills Court. It was hard enough to sleep in her parents’ home the first night she was released from the hospital.
"I couldn’t sleep in that house," she recalled. "When my mother asked my father about lighting a fire in the fireplace, I almost had an anxiety attack."
Her parents never did light the fire.
Ms. Herwald said she saw firsthand the importance of taking basic safety precautions around the house like blowing out candles that she said her father always had taught her.
"Thank God (Zach) wasn’t there. If he had been there and he had been in his room his room was an inferno," she said with her voice trailing off.
After the fire, only a few keepsakes were retrieved from inside the Herwalds’ home.
A sprinkling of family photographs were located, but not nearly as many as the young mother would have hoped.
"One of my things I love to do in my spare time is take pictures," she said. "Most of them are … totally destroyed from heat and smoke damage."
Photos are not all that have been missing since December.
Her puppy, Winston, a keeshond, perished in the fire.
"He was a member of the family. That was hard," said Ms. Herwald.
"When they took me off the ventilator, I asked them about Winston whether he had made it or not."
And when she learned the answer, she suffered a setback.
"I had to go back on the ventilator from Thursday until Monday," she said.
The impact of the fire goes beyond Ms. Herwald’s new hairstyle. Once long, her locks, which were singed in the fire and had to be snipped, are now short.
As a relatively new resident of her neighborhood, off The Great Road north of Cherry Valley Road, Ms. Herwald said she was touched by the level of community support after the fire.
"The outreach from the community was overwhelming," she said.
A number of her neighbors visited her in the hospital. A class of middle-school students sent her dozens of get-well cards.
"It really is a testament it doesn’t really matter if you’re from a big city or a big state you can still have that same quality (community) as somewhere in the Midwest, where my family is from," said Ms. Herwald.
And as far as those men who saved her life Mr. Spohn, Mr. Davis, Mr. Kozaryn and Officers Perry and Sean Sullivan Ms. Herwald says she will be forever indebted to them.
Before leaving for her parents’ home, Ms. Herwald attempted to visit each of them and said she regretted the only one she has not seen since Christmas is Officer Sullivan.
"These people just drop everything," she said of the volunteers and public safety officials. "To see how hard people worked to save me … they don’t even know me or my family. I am amazed."
Yes, Ms. Herwald had a truly unforgettable Christmas.
And although the burns have healed, she isn’t likely to ever forget the experience.
"I have a lot to be thankful for," she said.