Amazing Grace in the Face of Tragedy

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“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”

After speaking with Monika Wroblewski, the above words from the Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace” came to mind.  A horrific twist of fate that devastated her family on Wednesday, March 22, is a powerful testimony of how their tragedy ultimately strengthened their faith, brought out a little hero and powerfully united the Rockaway community, who within minutes, came out in droves to help.

In a grief-stricken voice, sobbing at intervals, but resolutely determined to tell her story and express her family’s gratitude to the Rockaway community, Wroblewski shared her heart-wrenching story of last week’s apartment fire at 102-00 Shore Front Parkway with The Rockaway Times.

“Like any other week day, my daughter, eight-year-old Julia was sitting at the dining room table doing her homework, while my son, four-year-old Kasper, was playing in his room.

“Julia came to me, and said, ‘Mommy I smell smoke.’ I was in the bathroom coloring my hair, so I said to her, ‘Julia, just give me a second.’ She came back again and insisted, ‘Mommy I really smell smoke.’ So I went to her immediately. As I approached the living room, where she was doing her homework, I saw the smoke! I said to her, ‘Julia, please take Kasper and go to the hallway immediately!’ And they knew that when I said, ‘IMMEDIATELY,’ they had to drop whatever they were doing and go now!

“I opened the terrace door and saw the smoke. I then closed it, and quickly called 911. My first thought was that somebody was grilling. I didn’t see the flames the first time I opened the door. But the moment I opened the terrace door the second time and slid the screen to the side, it went on fire. I closed the door again, and grabbed a bottle of water thinking I could put the flames out, but they just got bigger and bigger.

The FDNY worked rapidly to control the fire and keep it from spreading, but the inferno claimed everything in the apartment. “In minutes we were already outside the building in a police car. We looked up and saw that our apartment was gone. The police officers knew me from the 100 Precinct, where I work as an auxiliary officer, and kept reassuring me, ‘Don’t you worry, we got it.’

“They started asking me basic questions, I guess to keep me calm, yet alert. They asked me, ‘What is your son’s birthday?’ I just mentally blacked out. Being in the police car, I did not want to get emotional, I did not want to cry, so I didn’t talk. Then Julia took over and started telling the officer, ‘My brother, Kasper’s birthday is 5-16-2012. Mine is 11-17-2008. I can also give you my parents’ cell phones numbers.’ Julia is really the hero in all this. In the police car, she was trying to make Kasper laugh as he was really upset. Kasper kept saying, ‘Mommy I am going to cry, please don’t stop me.’ He cried and cried and cried.

“Then Julia asked me, ‘Mommy can you call my teacher, Ms. Boyer please?’ I replied to her, ‘Do you want me to tell her what happened?’ She answered, ‘No mommy, I want to ask her if I could be excused from homework tomorrow because everything is all burnt.’ I have tears in my eyes, but I could not cry, so I said to her, ‘Yes, sure.’ So I called Ms. Rosa Boyer, Julia’s teacher at Waterside Children’s Studio School, where both my children attend. Within 15 minutes Ms. Boyer was there with Kasper’s teacher. They took care of the kids, so I could go to the apartment because I wanted to find my wedding rings, which were the first possessions I was desperate to find.

“I implored the fire chief, ‘Please, help me. I have to find my wedding rings.’ So he gracefully went with me. The hallway was full of water and he noticed that I didn’t have shoes on, so he gave me some shoes, which I didn’t even stop to think where they came from. So then together we went into the apartment, and we looked inch by inch in the ashes, searching, and we finally found the rings! I hugged him so hard! He turned me to me and said, ‘This is a miracle because everything else is melted.’

Wroblewski credited her eight-year-old daughter for saving them. “My Julia is the hero. She warned me. She knew that something was wrong, and yet was so brave. If it wasn’t for Julia, I do not want to even think about what could have happened.”

At this point, Wroblewski started to sob uncontrollably, but remained determined to show her gratitude to the community. Reminiscent of the support following Hurricane Sandy, the neighborhood came out in droves to help a neighbor in need. From Dayton Towers opening up a studio apartment to the family, to neighbors spearheading donation collections, to local businesses creating gift baskets, to a GoFundMe campaign that raised more then $20,000 within 24 hours, Rockaway’s support was unwavering. “I must tell the entire Rockaway community that we love them so much,” Wroblewski said.

“We can be sad, but when we see how people are open to us, perfect strangers who just come to give us a hug, reassuring us that everything will be fine, it’s just all been so beautiful, amidst our huge loss. Our door is never closed because people are constantly coming just to tell us that they are thinking about us, praying for us. It’s just so overwhelming.

“Local businesses have also been so kind. For example, Boardwalk Pizza and Thai Rock brought us dinners, Lola Star brought a beach bag of brand new clothes for Julia, plus donations from Elegante, Bungalow Bar, Blue Bungalow, RockaPop and CROM Fitness, who has organized a kick-a-thon  fundraiser, and countless others. I want them all to know how I appreciate their love.

“I really want to point out that we are all in this together. It’s one family’s tragedy, but the community has stepped up so much. I am speechless. When I open the door to the next person, I start to cry immediately because I know that all they want to do is to help. They are so good to my kids. Like yesterday, my fellow officers from the 100 Precinct came and dropped boxes full of toys for my children. They also come to check on us every night.

“Our parish, St. Rose de Lima, local politicians like Senator Addabbo and Lew Simon reached out to us, offering their support. Principal Dana and the entire Waterside School family, oh my God, they are so good. It was Julia’s teacher, Ms. Boyer who started the GoFundMe campaign for us. The goodness is so deep. It has to be said that people are busy during the day, they have families, but they find time to care.

“I want everyone to know that once we are settled, hopefully in two weeks, please come back and sit with us, hug us, kiss us.

“I keep repeating to my husband that we don’t see the bigger picture, only God sees it, and we know he is good. It’s an important experience for us to all feel loved in the community and that when something happens, we can all count on each other.

“So yes, despite our loss, there has been miracle after miracle after miracle. Even though we lost everything, we appreciate what we have — each other — and the wonderful Rockaway community,” Wroblewski said.

The Wroblewski family is overloaded with material donations, but monetary donations can still be made toward the GoFundMe campaign at www.gofundme.com/WroblewskiFamily.

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