Housemates remember SIU student killed in fire as hardworking, artistic
Friends of the SIU student killed in a house fire the day before Thanksgiving say he was preparing to head home and visit family the day he died, and remembered him as an intelligent and creative man influential to those who knew him.
Alex Kierstead, a junior from Aurora studying political science and journalism, was found dead Nov. 23 after firefighters extinguished a blaze in the home he shared with three other SIU students. He was 20.
“We’ve never experienced losing someone as close to us as Alex was,” said Josh Schenkenfelder, a senior from Oak Forest studying journalism who lived with Kierstead since August. “We’re making the best of a really horrible situation and we’re remembering Alex really fondly.”
Kierstead was the only of the four roommates home when the fire started. Roommate Joe Hein said he and Kierstead were supposed to leave Carbondale the Tuesday before break. They had planned to take the 300-mile trip together, but Kierstead decided to spend another night in town so he could lend a ride to a friend.
That was the kind of person Kierstead was, Hein said.
“He would go out of his way to make friends every single day of his life,” he said.
At 4:50 a.m. Nov. 23, firefighters were called to a structure fire at 700 W. Freeman St. When first responders arrived, the home was engulfed in flames. Authorities identified the body found inside the home as Kierstead on Monday.
Hein woke that morning to a phone call from Schenkenfelder, who told him the house had burned down. Hein was thinking about all the possessions he’d lost in the home until about an hour later, when he learned about the dead body.
“I got the message that there was a body found in the house and all that became irrelevant,” Hein said. “I was just devastated.”
The friendship between the housemates dates back to before Kierstead began taking courses at the university. As a prospective student, Kierstead spent a weekend in Carbondale at the home they were renting with John Kenny, a friend from Aurora who studies political science and was the third roommate on Freeman Street. When he started classes in Fall 2015, Kierstead — a graduate of Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora — spent his first year in university housing before signing on in August to move in with Kenny, Hein and Schenkenfelder.
Beginning the day of his death, friends and family shared memories of Kierstead on his Facebook page. Many expressed grief and shock at what happened, some posting photographs and experiences they’d shared. Many pictured him about the local landmarks like Giant City State Park.
A lover of the outdoors, Schenkenfelder said one of the many activities Kierstead enjoyed was hiking around the Shawnee National Forest.
“One of his favorite parts about coming to school here was all the natural resources it has to offer,” Schenkenfelder said.
Friends described Kierstead as intelligent, artistic and hardworking. He was a student reporter for WSIU, a delivery driver and worked with the election campaign for newly elected state Rep. Dave Severin as he pursued his studies. Hein said he was asking around about a study-abroad program in Morocco.
“He was definitely a busy man,” Hein said.
The university offered a free meal plan and housing for the three roommates displaced by the fire. Hein and Kenny are staying in Neely Hall until the end of the semester, and Schenkenfelder moved in with his girlfriend.
While it pales in comparison to the loss of their friend, Schenkenfelder said, the three seniors are dealing with the added weight of losing a home and all their possessions while trying to concentrate on graduating in the spring.
“It really has proven that the rest of the world doesn’t stop when something tragic happens like this,” Schenkenfelder said.
On Sunday, the three surviving roommates went to the site of the fire to sift through the rubble and salvage what they could. Among a few artifacts spared by the flames were two of Kierstead’s guitars, which the friends sent to his mother, and an acrylic mural painting of an alien on the basement door.
The painting was also Kierstead’s. Schenkenfelder said Kierstead just decided to go down and paint it one day when he had some time on his hands. The three friends removed the door and stashed it at a nearby friend’s house for temporary keeping.
“We’re not sure exactly what we’re going to do with it yet,” Schenkenfelder said. “Something to memorialize Alex.”
“It’s just a really nice reminder of how creative Alex was,” he added.
A memorial service for family and friends of Kierstead is scheduled for Dec. 18 at New England Congregational Church in Aurora. Hein said the roommates will be in Chicagoland for the service, and they’re thinking of wearing tie-dye shirts to remember Kierstead.
“Alex always really loved tie dye,” Hein said. “I think it’s just really going to brighten up the ceremony.”