Stoughton, WI – A bad smell of burning rubber coming from the washer in the basement could well have saved Michelle Roeske’s life on Christmas Eve.
The smell drove her to the third floor to take a shower in the duplex in Stoughton where she and her family lived at 1323 W. Main St. Normally, Roeske, 17, would use the shower in the basement where her bedroom was.
While she was on the third floor, the basement exploded.
“The whole ground beneath me shook,” Roeske said. “It was obviously an explosion … I just knew I had to get the heck out of there.”
She grabbed a nightgown, her glasses and a cell phone and made her way downstairs. As she did so, she could she see flames creeping up from the basement through cracks in the walls.
“If she had been in the basement, she would have been killed,” said her mother, Mary Koch.
Her family, including Koch and Koch’s fiance, Delaine “Bic” Fuller, lost everything in the explosion and fire, which appears to have been set off by a natural gas leak.
Missing is Roeske’s 8-year-old cat, Midnight. The only things they salvaged were the clothes they were wearing and the vehicle that Koch and Fuller, who were out of the residence, were driving. A second vehicle was in the garage but fell into the basement.
Firefighters were called at 5:23 p.m. and arrived to find flames shooting 15 feet above the residence, which collapsed not long after.
Since the explosion, the family has been trying to get back on their feet. But the setback isn’t the only one they’ve recently suffered.
They lost their previous home in a foreclosure, and Fuller was laid off from his job at Uniroyal in Stoughton. The family had to declare bankruptcy. Koch is a registered nurse but has been missing work due to an ongoing health condition. Because money is tight, Koch let their insurance, including renter’s insurance, lapse in November.
“Our story is the classic, ‘What’s happening in this country, unfortunately, to a lot of people,’ ” Koch said.
The family has been living with Koch’s sister, Melanie Neal, at her home south of Oregon. On Monday, they found a condo they could rent in Stoughton, where Roeske is a senior at Stoughton High School.
And they’ve been receiving donations, including from the Red Cross, Koch’s church and area residents. But they have a long way to go.
“It’s the most overwhelming thing you can imagine to lose everything in a fire,” Koch said.
Scott Wegner, Stoughton’s deputy fire chief and fire marshall, said the explosion’s cause hasn’t been determined, but he said it was likely accidental and probably due to natural gas. Damages are estimated at $200,000 and could go higher.
Also displaced, he said, were two people who lived in the other part of the duplex, including a man who received minor injuries and was released from the hospital. Their residence isn’t habitable, but they will be able to salvage belongings, Wegner said.