CHAMPAIGN — Just last week, Lindsey and Ben Hammerslag, both 24-year-old University of Illinois students, spent the last of the cash and gift cards they received as wedding gifts in January on items for their Champaign apartment.
"We spent $500 at Target and our apartment was lovely, homey and well-decorated," said Lindsey Hammerslag, adding that the thank-you notes had not yet been completed.
That all changed early Wednesday when fire swept through the building they called home at the Stonegate Village Apartments, 2403 W. Springfield Ave.
"My bedroom is right next to the locus of the fire. I was dreaming and suddenly there were flames in the dream. I sleep two feet from the window. I opened my eyes and it was pure orange and there was heat coming off the window. I elbowed my husband and we ran. It was just a roar of noise. We didn't stop for anything. I thought to leave the door open and stopped to knock on neighbors' doors on the way out," she said.
She left the door open hoping their two cats would leave on their own. One did; the other and a rabbit were found in the apartment — alive — hours later.
Ten of the 12 apartments in the three-story building were occupied by 15 people. All got out safely, most with just the clothes they were wearing. The building was destroyed, the loss estimated at $1 million. There were four apartments on each floor.
Fire officials said Thursday that a carelessly discarded cigarette started the fire on the balcony of a first floor apartment. Flames quickly spread up the outside of the building to the roof. Hammerslag said that apartment was directly beneath theirs.
On Friday, displaced residents were trying to get resettled in other unfurnished apartments found for them in the same complex by the owners, Royse & Brinkmeyer.
Stephanie Funkhouser, office manager for Royse & Brinkmeyer, said several of the tenants did not have renter's insurance.
"We don't require it but we strongly encourage it. So many people think, 'This isn't going to happen to me.' We feel it's vitally important," she said, adding that the insurance is fairly inexpensive.
Royse & Brinkmeyer employees were spreading the word about those tenants most in need through the company's web site (http://www.roysebrinkmeyer.com) under the fire relief tab and on Facebook, urging willing donors to contact the victims directly.
Karen Maldonado was among them. She was getting hot as she slept and got up to open the window.
"I thought someone was shooting. I realized it was popping from the fire. I saw the sparks, grabbed my daughter and ran out," she said.
Given the difficulty of waking a sleeping teen-ager at 3:45 a.m., Maldonado had to repeat herself to get 15-year-old Aliyah to comprehend the seriousness of the situation.
Maldonado left with nothing but her daughter. Aliyah brought only her cell phone.
"Everything is gone," she said Friday from a laundromat where she was trying to wash soot and smoke from the few clothes they salvaged. "The roof collapsed into our apartment."
Maldonado, who's lived in the complex about a year, was kicking herself about the lack of insurance.
"I've never needed it. I regret not getting it," she said, adding that she and her daughter need everything.
She said co-workers from AT&T in Rantoul where she works have been helpful.
Even though the Hammerslags have renter's insurance, that doesn't cover the $1,100 in veterinarian bills they have incurred for their cats and rabbit, all of which suffered smoke inhalation, Lindsey Hammerslag said.
Sadie, the 13-year-old "adventuresome" cat, ran out the door when the Hammerslags did. Fieval , a 6-year-old Maine coon, remained in the apartment until about 11 a.m. The couple found him, soaked and shivering, when they were first allowed back in about 9 a.m. He was suffering from hypothermia.
Hammerslag said when her husband saw all the water in the corner where their exotic rabbit's cage was, he assumed the worst. About 3 p.m., they asked a firefighter to check for Lola, 2, a Polish dwarf.
"The fireman came down holding a cage with a clean, dry rabbit. I don't know how she did it. I think she made a deal with the devil. She was fine," Lindsey Hammerslag said.
Few other of their belongings survived. Fans of action figures, the Hammerslags spent several hours Wednesday digging for their collectibles, only to be told by recovery specialists that anything with plastic would have to be tossed because of the cancer-causing effects of the soot.
Their electronics, including computers, were ruined. Hammerslag said she and her husband "back up everything ... in multiple versions" so they weren't worried about losing school work or personal files. She's a Ph.D. student in neuroscience and he's a master's candidate in library and information science.
She turned in 75 percent of the statistics homework that was due Wednesday — the professor agreed to give her a few extra days — and is currently fretting about an upcoming exam in that class.
"Our dishes and silver will probably make it. That's about it," she said.
Many of their wedding gifts were not from their gift registry and had special meaning, such as her husband's aunt's pearl necklace, that he gave her on their wedding night.
"We'll figure out how to replace that stuff," she said. "I feel like my experience with the loss is tempered by getting the pets back."