KATONAH, N.Y. – Bill and Diane Swertfager have dedicated much of their lives to giving back to the local athletic community, which eagerly returned the favor in the wake a fire that damaged their home and displaced their family.
“It’s overwhelming and it’s a little embarrassing because we like to give,” said Diane Swertfager. “We’re not used to receiving.”
Bill Swertfager is a varsity wrestling coach at John Jay High School and Diane Swertfager is a varsity volleyball coach at Hen Hud High School. They also volunteer their time as coordinators or board members in their respective sports.
A fire started in a wood stove around 1 p.m. Monday, Feb. 24, in the Katonah home the Swertfagers live in with their adult children. Their son had come home for lunch and left, leaving the house unattended until their daughter, Theresa, returned home around 2:50 p.m.
“She opened up the door and smoke poured out,” Bill Swertfager said. “The fire was only in one room. The police, the fire department did an amazing job stopping it. It could have been really, really bad.”
The fire was contained but much of the house was damaged by the smoke, resulting in the Swertfagers being displaced for about six months while renovations are completed.
“They have to redo everything,” Bill said. “Ripping walls down, ripping sheetrock down, furniture, carpets, flooring.”
Though insurance will cover much of the cost, an online fundraiser organized by the Section 1 Wrestling Coaches Association raised $13,033 for the family. The Swertfagers are now staying at a local inn, but a neighbor also opened their home up to the family in the days immediately following the fire.
“People can say what they want about this town, but the people and the community, as far as I’m concerned, are the best in the country,” Bill said. Community, he added, is about looking out for one another. “Sooner or later, somebody is going to need help. You always think it’s going to be someone else, until it’s you.”
Diane said the response from the community has been heartening.
“There is a lot of love,” Diane said. “You talk about society and about how everyone’s about themselves., that’s just not true.”
The family said they feel “blessed,” not only by the outpouring of community support but by a combination of factors that allowed all family members and pets (cats and fish) to emerge unscathed. “Theresa never comes home at that time,” Diane said. The Swertfagers also praised the response time of the Katonah Volunteer Fire Department.
“If this had happened at night, it could have been catastrophic,” Bill said. “The fire was right below our bedroom. God only knows what would have happened.”
Throughout their coaching careers, Bill and Diane have preached the importance of perseverance to their student-athletes. Now, it’s their turn to follow their own advice.
“We will get through this and we will be stronger on the other end,” Bill said.