Fire destroys family home Public Works employee 'critical but stable' after house explosion

Public Works employee 'critical but stable' after house explosion

A New Milford family came face to face with disaster Tuesday night.

A town highway department driver was critically injured and he and his family lost their Paper Mill Road home when an explosive fire ripped through their house after he had been fueling a snowmobile, family and officials said.

Mark Rakowski, 34, was listed Wednesday in critical but stable condition in the burn center at Bridgeport Hospital.

His wife, Sandra, who works at Tia's Country Daycare and School on Old Park Lane Road, and two children, Joey, 10, and Kaitlyn, 6, escaped the fire that destroyed the home and killed a pet talking parrot.

The family's Golden Retriever, Jingles, escaped but ran away and had not by press deadline been found.

"They lost everything,'' lamented the Rakowskis' cousin, Carolea Schindo of Southbury. "The whole roof blew off and everything... they didn't even have shoes.''

The New Milford fire marshal's office investigated and deemed the blaze, reported at about 8 p.m., to be accidental fire caused when a pilot light on a propane-fueled "Mr. Heater Buddy'' space heater ignited the gasoline vapors as Mr. Rakowski was fueling his snowmobile.

The fire marshal's office advised that space heaters should never be used when fueling equipment.

Firefighters from all the volunteer companies in town spent a couple of hours striving to extinguish the fire. State Department of Environmental Protection crews were also called to the scene to assess gasoline and oil run-off into the East Aspetuck River.

On Wednesday, yellow tape closed off the driveway in front of the now-charred, cape-style white house with green shutters the family bought in 1999.

Through the gaping hole the fire had made through the roof, onlookers could catch a glimpse of an undamaged, wooden playscape and pool in the backyard.

Two fire-damaged vehicles, one a pickup truck, remained in front of the blackened garage doors.

Had it not been for the family's son, Joey, who alerted his mother and sister to a smell of smoke coming from the basement, the entire family could have been trapped, Ms. Schindo said.

Joey apparently opened the cellar door and saw a cloud of smoke. His mother then herded them out the front door, said Ms. Schindo said.

"The next thing they knew... the house blew up,'' she added.

She said it is unclear how Mr. Rakowski managed to get outdoors, where responding firefighters found him soon after the emergency call had been made about 8 p.m.

"We don't know how he is alive,'' Ms. Schindo said. "It's a miracle.''

The local American Red Cross is currently assisting the family, who for the time being are staying with relatives.

New Milford Public Works superintendent Jerry Hollins said he was stunned and saddened to learn of the fire from one of his other workers.

"I was shocked, and very surprised,'' said Mr. Hollins, who noted Mr. Rakowski has always been safety-conscious and serves on the town's Safety Committee.

"He is a really good guy. I have 36 employees, and I put him right at the top,'' Mr. Hollins said of his injured worker, who joined the department in July 2004.

The tragedy has spurred an extensive community outpouring of willingness to do whatever can be done to help the family recoup what they have lost.

Ms. Schindo, who works for Walmart in New Milford, said her store is arranging clothing donations.

Mr. Hollins is coordinating the community drive for everything from donated vehicles to furnishings for when they have a new home (see related story). He said he has a storage area where items can be dropped off, and he will also make pick ups if that is required. Cash donations and gift cards are also welcome, he said.

"You know New Milford. It's a big-hearted town,'' declared Mayor Patricia Murphy. "The community always comes out and supports each other in an emergency. That's what makes New Milford so good.''

Ms. Schindo said she knows the family has already drawn comfort from the community's willingness to reach out to them in this tragic time.

"They're very strong people," she said, "and I know they will get through this."