“It’s just an indescribable experience. I cry at everything,” Jennifer Shlapak said. “Every time I hold my little one and he falls asleep, it’s like a first.”
Jennifer and Jack Shlapak had a tree crash through their roof and pin two of the children under the rubble during Storm Sandy. Ms. Shlapak shared the tale of their misadventure last Friday, having gotten through the worst of it — with a lot of help from a lot of people.
“We’re just so grateful. The town and people and friends and family have been so amazing. We didn’t even know we had such an amazing community — strangers emailing us and offering help. We don’t even have it half as bad as people in New Jersey and New York.”
A pot luck dinner and silent auction to benefit the Shlapak family will take place Sunday, Nov. 18, from 4 to 7 at the Boys and Girls Club. Organizers are “seeking all types of products and services that can be auctioned.” For more information, email [email protected] and/or call Valerie at 203-515-6588.
Their home on Old Sib Road can’t be lived in — one of two houses in town ruled uninhabitable, according to the building department. But they’re now settled into an apartment on Danbury Road.
“We’re right across from Stop & Shop. Steve Zemo set us up with an apartment there,” Ms. Shlapak said. “We’re really comfortable there. We’re going to stay there until our house can be rebuilt, which may be 10 months.
“There’s not a tree in sight!” she added.
That’s a good thing?
“Yes,” she said.
She admits to being a little ambivalent about moving back to the woods of Old Sib Road.
“I think it would be really hard for us to imagine living in that same house. It would be hard for us,” she said. “I think we’re going to change it a little bit. We’ll see what insurance says. We don’t know yet. It would be hard to live there.”
Things are getting back toward normal.
Jack Shlapak is going to work — he’s a partner at HCSG, a health care subrogation group in Shelton.
“He has a concussion, too,” Ms. Shlapak said.
Evan, 11, also had a concussion and two weeks after the storm had yet to return to classes at Scotts Ridge Middle School, where he’s in sixth grade.
“My concussion is too bad,” he said.
The hope this Tuesday was that his doctor would approve his return by the end of the week.
The other two boys were back at Barlow Mountain Elementary School: Ben, 8, in third grade, and Blake, 5, in kindergarten.
“They were sent back on restrictions,” Ms. Shlapak said, “but they’re really happy to be back with their friends and getting back to normal.”
Back to something like normal is a lot, in light of the devastation at the house they were all in when Sandy blew into town, bringing down trees and wires all over Ridgefield — but scoring a direct hit on their house.
“It’s unimaginable how anyone walked out of there,” Ms. Shlapak said.
“The house just came down like paper. It just shredded like paper,” she said. “One minute you’re watching your children eat, and the next they’re buried and you don’t know what’s happening.
“Evan was able to crawl out and we yelled for him to just leave the house. And he, on his own, was brave and smart and ran next door,” Ms. Shlapak said.
“I stepped on glass. I had no shoes on,” Evan said.
“The other two were eating at the granite countertop, and they were pinned at their chest and abdomen by the beams and everything, the roof, the tree. There was no way to move everything to get them out,” Ms. Shlapak said. “It was really dark. We couldn’t see anything. We’re outside in the rain at this point.”
Evan ran to the neighbors’, John and Chris Wright’s, house.
“I told them what happened real quick and that’s where my friend Jack lives, so his dad had a Jeep, went over to see what happened. My dad came out and yelled for help.”
John Wright fetched some tools and began working to free the children from beneath the collapsed roof and beams and a granite countertop.
“He saved them,” Ms. Shlapak said. “He was the only one with a sound mind. He got some hammers and crowbars and broke the counters they were stuck under. And we were able to get them out. They were stuck there for about 40 minutes.”
Ms. Shlapak was terrified — a mother worried for her children.
“It was so dark. I was sitting in something warm and wet. I thought it was blood. My middle son, Ben, said he couldn’t feel his legs, at one point,” she said.
“I’m an emergency room nurse, so I see a lot of stuff, and my mind just went for the worst.”
The Fire Department had been called and an ambulance was on its way. But it was the height of the storm and they had no idea how long it would take for the ambulance to arrive.
“I think we had multiple calls,” Ms. Shlapak said. “I made one, but my call went to New York because it’s a cell phone. We called our friends down the street, they also placed a call.
“We felt helpless,” she said. “They were trapped about 40 minutes.”
Pretty soon the ambulance arrived. “They had a really tough time getting to us, there were so many trees down,” Ms. Shlapak said.
Then came the ride to the hospital, with firefighters improvising routes around roads blocked by trees and downed wires in the midst of the howling storm.
“We had to take this road we didn’t even know about, to get to the hospital,” Evan said.
“We had to back up to a downed tree, get out, and walk around it to a second ambulance, because there was no way for the first ambulance to get out,” Ms. Shlapak said. “And from there we took some kind of access road, or private road.”
From tree-fall to hospital was more than an hour and a half.
“It happened around 6:20. And we landed in the hospital around 8,” Ms. Shlapak said.
But by time of the long ambulance ride, Ms. Shlapak at least had gotten over the worst of the fears that were racing around her head when she was sitting in the dark with two kids trapped in the rubble.
“I knew they were OK in the ambulance. We had a long ride. I heard them talking,” she said.
“I knew that they were OK. We didn’t know about the extent of head injuries, or chest-abdomen injuries, but I knew that they had feeling in their legs,” she said. “But there were still trauma alerts at the hospital and they went through the whole CAT scan, head to toe. It was intense.
“We were just so happy to get out of that house. The floor buckled. We had candles going, the propane stove — we didn’t know if the place was going to catch on fire. And we were alone.”
It’s hard to think of people as lucky after a tree crushed their house — but it could have been worse. Really.
“People keep calling me a hero,” said Evan, who made the mid-storm sprint to the neighbors. “It was actually the pellet stove that was the hero. If that wasn’t there, I would have been crushed.”
“He was at the dining room table, which is right under the tree, now. But I guess the pellet stove kind of assisted in it not landing on him, somehow,” Ms. Shlapak said.
“It’s unimaginable how anyone walked out of there,” she said.
“Our neighbor was amazing. Who knew what he was going to see, running up those stairs? Just, neighbor helping neighbors — amazing.”