HAMBURG, N.Y. (WIVB) — All that remains of the Neureuter’s home on Rosedale Avenue are just a few scraps of debris, and a hole that once held a decades-old foundation.
If you’re close enough, the smell of smoke still hangs in the air, clings to the charred trees and earth.
The six-member family will rebuild, and in the same spot. And perhaps the biggest reason they’ve been able to rise from the ashes of what happened, is because of their faith — fortified by what’s happened to them since — miracles large and small, and an endless embrace from their community.
Just after 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 22, fire alarms roused Jeff and Susan Neureuter from sleep, the alert muffled by thick smoke. Jeff was awake first.
“And then, I heard him, and he came back and said Suz, we have to get out of the house,” Susan said. “And I was hearing him say ‘Fire! Everyone out.”
Chances for their survival were diminishing, as flames had spread though the first floor.
“Really chaotic, even in the hallway. The sound of fire is so loud,” Susan said.
The house was beyond saving, their only escape, a second story window in the master bedroom.
“The smoke was so dense already, and it was really dark. And we could see the flames. … the flames were really high from the garage and the sitting room,” she said.
The five at home at the time made it out with various injuries, none of them life-threatening.
Bruised and choking on smoke, they found themselves in the front yard, immediately surrounded by neighbors and emergency crews.
“You’re watching this happen, and it’s a dream, you know, a nightmare,” Susan said.
Just minutes before, authorities said they found Nicholas Harms standing shoeless in a neighbor’s yard, his pockets filled with items they said he stole from the Neureuter’s kitchen and vehicles.
Our cameras caught his silhouette, as he sat handcuffed in the back of an Erie County Sheriff’s Office cruiser, the fire still raging in the background.
The 31-year-old from neighboring Eden is facing eight charges, including burglary, grand larceny, trespassing and criminal possession of stolen property.
He has not been charged with arson — and likely won’t be, according to investigators.
The Neureuters didn’t know Nicholas Harms before this. How he ended up there that night appears random. A clear motive may never emerge, especially since the likely result will be a plea deal.
“They wanted to make sure they got it all, and I guess it just takes that long. It’s frustrating, but it’s the way it is,” Jeff said. “I definitely want justice. But I’m not up late thinking about justice.”
Instead, Susan and Jeff have often found themselves up late sifting through hundreds of cards and letters still delivered to the mailbox at their old address, many from strangers, reminding them to stay strong and that God is with them.
The Neureuters had everything they thought they needed in life when they went to bed Aug. 21 — until they didn’t. .
The fire stripped their lives bare, leaving just faith and family behind. Little did they know, their friends, family and especially their community, would supply the rest.
“Everything we needed, every single time, it was just there,:” Susan said through tears. “We just had to think, oh, that’s something we need, or we really need this, and it just walked in the door.”
Some of what’s happened is unexplainable.
Like this camera, charred and stiff, destroyed but for the one-inch memory card slot, where more than 3,000 family pictures were stored.
Or two stacks of family albums, 12 in all, filled with decades of precious moments that were somehow spared from the flames.
“So much is given to you that you don’t deserve in this life,” Susan said. “So, we didn’t deserve for that fire to happen to us. And we certainly don’t feel that we deserve the outpouring of support. We never would have expected for all of these people to surround us with this much love and kindness.
“When you realize that God provides so much more for you in this life than you could ever deserve,” she added. “It’s then in your darkest hour that you can see how good He is, and that you can be content and truly grateful, even when terrible things happen to you.”
Harms is next due in Hamburg Town Court on Dec. 6.