KANKAKEE — At 6:05 a.m. April 13, Gerald Levesque woke up to a beeping sound that he assumed was his morning alarm. He checked his phone. Nope.
He got up and opened his bedroom door, and the culprit was obvious — it was the smoke alarm. Flames and black smoke billowed overhead. The house was on fire.
That’s when Levesque, 60, leapt into action.
He grabbed his fiancé, Valerie Steele, 57, and her chihuahua puppy, Daisy, from the bedroom and led them outside to safety. He then went back inside, woke up his son, Michael, 40, and led him outside to safety.
“We were sleeping,” Steele recalled. “We had no idea of any danger ahead of us at all.”
“It took him not even 5 minutes to get us all out,” she added. “He was moving.”
But Levesque’s rescue mission was not over.
While Daisy was safe with Steele, the family also lived with three other pets. Luckily, their other dog, a husky named Zeppelin, and a cat named Tigger, were already outside. But their twin granddaughters’ dog, a 5-year-old, white pit bull named Brandy, was not.
Levesque went back into the burning home three times to attempt to rescue Brandy, who was hiding under the bed. She was too terrified to come out despite his attempts.
A garbage man driving by the home had called the fire department, and Steele quickly got on the phone with 911 as well. They counted at least 13 fire trucks had arrived on their block east of Kankakee to fight the fire.
“Within about 8 minutes of us being out of the house, the whole thing was just totally engulfed,” Steele said. “The smoke, it went pretty deep. If we had slept another 10 minutes, I don’t think we’d be here.”
After about 45 minutes went by, they assumed the worst for Brandy.
Suddenly, a firefighter called out that he saw a dog in the bedroom window.
Levesque ran back to the house — falling in a ditch on the way but getting back up — and reached through the bedroom window to grab Brandy, pulling her outside to safety. Though he singed the top of his head in the process, he has no regrets.
“[The dog] was just so happy, oh my Lord,” he recalled. “My granddaughters call me a hero. It was a rescue dog when they got her; now it’s kind of twice over [being rescued]. I just can’t believe it.”
Brandy is staying with a family friend in Watseka, and Zeppelin is staying with a friend on a horse farm in Manteno. Daisy was able to remain with the couple, who are now living with family in the area.
Neighbors have helped out by providing food and shelter for Tigger, an indoor/outdoor cat that was used to roaming the neighborhood. Steele noted she was grateful Tigger was not inside at the time of the fire, as she likes to hide in closets.
Come September, Levesque and Steele will have been together for three years. They have plans to get married in one month. Levesque is a retired painter and Steele is retired from Shapiro Developmental Center.
The cause of the fire is unknown; fire officials told the family it might have been an electrical issue, but they could not determine the point origin with certainty because of the extent of the damage.
“Everyone who’s seen the house said they don’t know how we got out alive,” Levesque said. “It’s unreal.”
The couple has been told they will have to demolish the house before insurance coverage comes through, but they are unsure how they will pay for it upfront.
They had just paid the house off two months ago. On top of the loss of their home, they also lost nearly all of their belongings in the fire.
“I didn’t want to grab nothing but who I loved and get them out of there,” Levesque said. “That’s all I cared for right there in that second.”
Levesque said this was his first time ever being in a house fire, and he’s had to see his doctor due to nightmares and trouble sleeping since the incident.
“I never want to go through that ever again,” he said.
Despite the hardship, Levesque said he has no intention of postponing their wedding plans.
“This is not gonna stop me,” he said. “We are still getting married.”
He was happy to have been able to recover one particular item undamaged from the debris — his fiancé’s wedding band.
“Like I told her, maybe we lost everything, but we’ve still got each other.”