Just over two years ago, Palatine Bridge resident Katie DeBenedetti’s life dramatically changed in a way she couldn’t have anticipated, an unexpected tragedy setting in motion a series of events that allowed the 25-year-old to put her passion for helping others into practice.
On the night of July 28, 2018, when DeBenedetti was about one hour away from her 10-member-family home in Palatine Bridge, a cousin called her with a message nobody ever wants to hear: DeBenedetti’s home was on fire.
DeBenedetti received the call about 20 minutes after the blaze had begun, the home already fully engulfed. DeBenedetti immediately headed home, arriving to find her property bathed in red and blue flashing lights, with multiple fire departments and agencies battling the blaze that would completely decimate her family’s Brower Road residence.
“From that day forward, it was a long couple of years,” DeBenedetti said.
Her family moved into two campers on the property following the fire — rebuilding all the while, and eventually relocating to the property’s newly established foundation one week before Thanksgiving 2018.
While her family’s home being destroyed was a traumatic event that spurred subsequent bouts of anxiety which DeBenedetti is still working to conquer, she said that in the wake of the blaze, “One thing that really struck me was the amount of support we got from the community, especially from first responders.”
DeBenedetti said she recognized how the complete selflessness of first responders was monumental in not only assisting her family, but also many other local people.
“Looking back and seeing what they did for my family, I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” she said.
She approached Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department Chief Frank Nestle, Firefighter/Safety Officer Maria Nestle, and Captain Jonathan Ward (now Second Assistant Chief), who all informed DeBenedetti — who was initially a bit fearful of potential unknowns — that there’s more to being a fire department member than just fighting fires.
“It’s not only firefighting. It’s so much more,” DeBenedetti said, noting that being a department member means helping the community in a variety of ways, including assisting with the planning and execution of local fundraising and other endeavors.
DeBenedetti joined the department and went to work.
Having just crossed the one year mark as a department member, the process has promoted growth in DeBenedetti in a variety of ways. She said it helped her overcome many of the fire’s negative personal impacts.
“It helped me cope with the trauma,” she said of the department, which assisted her not only in understanding the situation that facilitated her membership, but also provided a new, positive context for things that previously triggered her in the fire’s aftermath, including the sounding of the local siren.
DeBenedetti noted that the process has allowed her to transform from a victim into somebody who can use her experience to assist and inspire those in situations similar to her own.
“I’m trying to be there for other people. I’m trying to be there for the people who helped me,” she said.
The process of training as a Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department member has been challenging, DeBenedetti said, but more-so, it’s been continually rewarding. Interior training has provided the most intense mental and physical challenge of DeBenedetti’s membership, though she noted that her instructors are so great, and her fellow department members so supportive, that by applying hard work to overcome her fears, they’ve transformed into proud accomplishments.
“You’re surrounded by people who know what they’re doing, and they’re never going to put you into a place you’re not ready to be in,” DeBenedetti said, adding of department peers, “I have a great support system!”
DeBenedetti — who has since moved from her family’s property — noted that her parents and siblings remain on the road to recovery, stating, “they’ve come a really long way,” since the incident.
The home they’re currently building is a bit bigger than the one that was destroyed. Flooring is now being put in on the first level of the new home, with a staircase having been installed, along with sheetrock, doors, plumbing and electricity.
With this new, unexpected experience continually assisting with her personal growth and development as a community-minded individual, DeBenedetti hopes to pass the Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department members’ goodwill and positivity to others. With volunteer interest low at departments throughout the local area, “I want to be able to encourage the younger generation to volunteer,” she said. “When you can give back to the community, it’s rewarding in itself.”
Those who are potentially scared of fighting fires like she initially was shouldn’t fear approaching the department with questions, or to find out more information, DeBenedetti said, assuring individuals that upon joining the organization, “There’s always something for everybody to do.”
“Firefighter Katie is what we are looking for in new members. She is eager to learn and puts her heart into everything she does,” Maria Nestle said.
Nestle said that via DeBenedetti’s “willingness to step up and push herself through training, she has quickly become a role model for our next generation of firefighters.”
DiBenedetti’s story related to the 2018 fire isn’t the only one that’s inspired locals. During the night of the blaze, young Canajoharie resident Miles Lapi rescued several of the Kwiatkowski family siblings from the blaze, smashing out a second-story window and then leading them to safety via a tree branch.
Lapi was hailed by not only the local department for his quick thinking and brave actions with a rarely-presented LifeSaver Award, but also by state legislators and representatives such as Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, who provided the young man with a New York State Assembly Citation.