Coach whose home burned down reaches out to Sandy victims

Sachem East head coach Mark Wojciechowski refers to Sachem East head coach Mark Wojciechowski refers to his play sheet as he calls a play during a game against Northport in a Suffolk I quarterfinal football game. (Nov. 11, 2012) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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As Long Island rises ever so slowly, ever so painfully from the rubble of destruction left by superstorm Sandy, Sachem East football coach Mark Wojciechowski can sympathize and empathize. "I know exactly what they're going through," he said.

Wojciechowski watched in frightened horror as the only Long Island home he had ever known burned to the ground in an early-morning raging fire of undetermined origins on April 18.

Sevenmonths later, work barely has begun on the site in Farmingville, where Wojciechowski was raised and where he lived with his wife, Mary, daughters Gabrielle, 8, and Mia, 7, and nephew Julian, 17.

Like the victims of Sandy, Wojciechowski has learned about the difficulties of insurance claims, environmental tests, building codes and the red tape that must be cut through before construction can begin. Even when, he says, the builder is the father of one of his assistant coaches.

Wojciechowski, whose team plays Floyd at 11 a.m. Sunday in the Suffolk I championship game, calls himself "very lucky" that he and his family not only escaped unharmed -- physically, at least -- but were able to move into a home recently vacated by his wife's sister in nearby Lake Ronkonkoma.

He said he and his wife and their two kids are forced to sleep in the same room, but he realizes that is a small price to pay in order to have the creature comforts of light, heat and shelter that recently were wrenched away from so many Long Islanders.

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"In hindsight, I consider myself so fortunate that so many people came out to help me and my family. But in this situation with Sandy, so many people have been devastated and lost so many things, it's like where do you start?" Wojciechowski said. "I was uncomfortable with everything that was given to us last April. If it had happened now, I would have to give some of it back. It would be too much."

That's why Wojciechowski, or Wojo, as he is known, has been so active in Sachem-centric fund-raising events for Sandy victims in his roles as dean-teacher at Sachem North and football coach at Sachem East. Several of his fellow teachers lost homes in the storm. "Whatever I can do," he said.

He was heavily involved with a Thanksgiving food drive at both Sachem high schools that, he said, typically feeds 500 to 1,000 families, as well as a Thanksgiving brunch organized by Sachem North teachers that raises money. Victims of Sandy were the recipients of both events.

"I'm all about paying it forward," he said. "The place we are staying now didn't suffer any damage from the storms. So I'm trying to be the person that rallies people to support those in need."

He knows whatever he does likely will pale in comparison to what was done for him in the aftermath of the fire that came perilously close to taking his family's lives.

"It's been great. It's been uplifting," he said, occasionally choking up as he described all that's been given to his family. "Thinking about all the people who have reached out, some of them complete strangers . . . It's very humbling. It makes you feel good about people."

Mia a lifesaver

The good will began almost immediately after his daughter, Mia, roused the family from sleep at about 3 a.m. It was the day before her seventh birthday and Mark and Mary Wojciechowski never will forget the gift of life Mia wound up giving the entire family. "Our hero," Mary said.

Mia woke up, saw something strange outside her window and ran into her parents' bedroom. "She's screaming, 'Daddy, Daddy, light!' So I went into her room, threw back the curtains and there was the fire -- right outside the window," Wojciechowski said. "We just ran outside in what we were wearing. I went out in my underwear. It was crazy. There was no time to put on any clothes."

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That's no exaggeration for dramatic effect. As Mary recalled, "Somehow, Mia got us up and as soon as we went down the stairs, the fire went right through her window. We got out by seconds."

Mark said they grabbed cell phones -- they tried to grab car keys, but they already had melted -- and raced outside, where they gathered near a huge oak tree in the front yard. "The safe tree," he said, smiling at the memory. "They had taught the girls in school to go to a safe place if you have an emergency, and we had the tree. So we all met there and the girls are yelling, 'Troy's not here! Troy's not here!' "

Troy is the family dog. Wojo knew he was expected to go back for Troy, but by this time, smoke was pouring out of the house from all sides.

"I thought, 'This is stupid. I shouldn't be going in for this dog,' " Wojciechowski said. "Just before I went inside, I called for him and he ran out and jumped into my arms. I brought him back to the tree and the girls were thrilled. "They're yelling, 'Troy! Troy!' That was a good moment."

Some bad moments followed as Wojciechowski watched the destruction of the house he'd lived in nearly his entire life. His head dropped as he remembered what happened next.

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"I'm in the front watching and waiting for the firemen and the police. Just watching it burn. At first I thought, it's only the front. Then it started to spread and the flames just ate the whole house," he said. "Everything was destroyed."

Pair of treasures saved

Wojciechowski and coaching buddies Jay Mauro, Tony Gambino and Joe Zarzycki managed to recover two treasures from the rubble: his 1985 Hansen Award trophy as the outstanding football player in Suffolk County and his wife's wedding dress, somehow undamaged in a set of boxes deep in a collapsed closet. Said Mary, through tears, "If you think about it, it's amazing that those two things were saved."

Neighbors and friends rose to the family's aid, bringing donations.

Sachem athletes got into the act, selling T-shirts, footballs and custom-made bracelets that read, "We Are Sachem" -- red and black for Sachem East; gold and black for Sachem North -- with football players manning the sales tables during their lunch periods.

"Everybody knows Coach Woj and everybody wanted to do something," Sachem East junior safety Danny Corbett said. "I wasn't surprised at the support, but I actually was surprised by how much we raised . . . On the best day, we got over a thousand dollars."

One afternoon last spring was declared "Play for Woj Day,'' with all the varsity sports teams in the Sachem district selling T-shirts at their games. "Even though we are rivals in sports, we all came together for Coach Woj," Corbett said.

When Mia and Gabrielle went back to school two days after the fire, "They were treated like rock stars," Wojciechowski said with a broad smile. "Kids in school were going up to them and saying, 'Here's the money from my piggybank.' "

Such acts of kindness have buoyed the family, but they haven't completely erased the pain of Wojciechowski losing the family home.

"When they knocked the house down, that was very emotional for us," Mary Wojciechowski said. "Mark wasn't going to go, but I saw him come around the corner and watch."

A successful football season, which included a stirring upset of top-seeded Connetquot on Nov. 17 on the final play of the game, has been a welcome distraction for Wojciechowski, who not only is dealing with his own losses, but has seen so much turmoil and tragedy around him caused by superstorm Sandy. "I wouldn't say life is normal yet, but we're as normal as we can be," he said.

The family is counting the days until they can move back into what friends are calling "the home they always wanted." It will be Victorian-style, replete with porch and finished basement that will be a playroom for the kids.

"Our first timetable was January, but now, realistically, maybe April," Mary Wojciechowski said. "Mia, on her Santa list, wrote that she wants the house built for Christmas. I told her Santa can only do what he can."

All over Long Island, that's a familiar refrain.

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