Community helps couple in time of need

Engineer Brian Konnerth, back left, Lt. Justin Boudreaux, back center, and firefighter/paramedic Michael Grubb, right, all with The Villages Public Safety Department, responded to the scene when a fire destroyed the house of Joan and Andy Gissinger in the Village of Amelia.

Joan Gissinger had just finished baking a birthday cake for her husband, Andy, during a storm when they heard a loud boom and their power suddenly went out. “I said to my husband, ‘Oh my gosh that was loud, it must have hit somewhere close,’” said Joan, of the Village of Amelia. “I looked out back and I didn’t see anything, but we smelled smoke.” Fortunately, Robbie Audette, Chris Kent and Rich Ernst were nearby at Mallory Hill Country Club for their weekly real estate agent golf league outing. They were waiting out the storm when one clap of lightning startled them more than the others, and they saw what the Gissingers didn’t — that their home was on fire.

Kent, a real estate agent with Properties of The Villages, said when they saw the smoke, their instincts quickly took over. They rushed to the home, hoping no one was inside. 

“When we pulled up it was completely dark and no lights were on in the house,” Kent said. “So we assumed no one was in there, but there was. The owner was at the front door with a phone in her hand and I said, ‘Hey, your house on fire, you guys need to get out.” 

Kent called 911 from his cellphone while Audette and Ernst helped the couple get out safely. 

“When the power is out, your garage doors don’t open, so we held the doors up and we got the car and golf carts out,” said Audette, also a real estate agent with Properties of The Villages. 

The three men waited with the Gissingers as first responders from The Villages Public Safety Department arrived about 10 minutes later in full force, ready to contain the blaze. 

“We call them our saviors,” Joan said. “We cannot thank them enough.” 

Employees of The Villages Insurance also showed up on-scene to help the couple open a claim and figure out a game plan. 

“It’s super comforting seeing all of that support and that there’s love all around,” Audette said. 

Lt. Justin Boudreaux and his crew from Station 44 with The Villages Public Safety Department were first on the scene when the incident happened June 8. 

VPSD determined the fire started after lightning struck the house, said Brian Twiss, VPSD deputy chief of operations. 

It took about eight different units a few hours to put out the fire. Throughout the incident and afterward, firefighters expressed their sympathy to the Gissingers, Joan said, which meant so much to her and Andy.

One firefighter went back into the house four times to find Joan’s purse, which she said had her entire life in it. 

VPSD Fire Chief Edmund Cain also gave the couple his personal phone number so they could call him if they needed anything, and he connected them with a Villages resident, who asked to remain anonymous, who is allowing them to stay in her rental property for free. 

“Fire Chief Cain and his crew not only fight fires, they are also sincerely the most caring men,” Joan said. “I can’t tell you how many of his crew came up to me after the fire was out, put their hand on my arm and told me sincerely how very sorry they were for this happening. They are great men.” 

Afterward, the department checked on the Gissingers several times to see how they were doing and delivered a birthday cake to Andy, Twiss and Boudreaux said. 

“We try to reach out to the families and community as best we can,” Boudreaux said. “We want to help. We love being here and want to be part of the community.”• ••VPSD hopes to continue protecting the community from these incidents through a special independent fire control district, allowing The Villages to tailor its resources to the unique needs of the community. Voters in Sumter County who live in the proposed district will be given the option to approve it during November’s General Election, enabling the district to start up in October 2023.

The Gissingers’ house fire is just one of the millions of fires that firefighters respond to nationally each year.

In 2020, fire departments responded to roughly 1.4 million fires in the U.S and about 26% were at apartments and homes like the Gissingers’. Those fires resulted in more than $21 billion in property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

VPSD responded to more than 24,000 incidents in the 2021-22 fiscal year, and 13% were calls related to fires, hazardous conditions, false alarms, good intent and severe weather.

The Gissingers are not sure what to do now, but said they are healing and moving forward and they definitely feel the love of the community. 

They plan to move closer to family in Texas instead of rebuilding or buying a new house in The Villages. Joan doesn’t think she would love a new house as much as she loved theirs, she said.

One message Joan has for her fellow Villagers is to take inventory of your life and pictures of the items in your home.

“We want to express our deepest gratitude for all the people we have mentioned, not to leave out our wonderful family, friends and neighbors,” Joan said. “We are broken right now but know time will heal.” 

Senior Writer Veronica Wernicke can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or veronica.wernicke@thevillagesmedia.com.