Friends gather to remember SIU student killed in house fire
Dozens of single flames illuminated images of a smiling SIU student, often pictured hiking, as friends gathered to remember Alex Kierstead on the the front steps of the house where he was found dead the day before Thanksgiving.
“You expect your grandma to die,” said John Kenny, one of Kierstead’s roommates. “You never expect your 20-year-old best friend to die.”
Kenny, a senior from Aurora studying political science, was one of about 80 people who gathered Friday evening to remember their friend Kierstead, whose body was found the morning of Nov. 23 after a fire at a home on 700 W. Freeman St. that he shared with three other SIU students. Kierstead was a junior from Aurora studying political science and journalism.
Though the vigil was supposed to begin at 6:30 p.m., a crowd had already begun to form 30 minutes prior.
“It’s uplifting,” Kierstead’s roommate Joe Hein said of the vigil. “I’ve been pretty devastated since this, but this has been the happiest I’ve been since he died.”
Hein, a senior from Lansing studying political science, spent the evening passing around dozens of candles to those gathered around the ruined home.
“There’s a lot of power,” said John’s brother, Patrick Kenny, a freshman from Aurora studying anthropology. “There’s a lot of magic that Alex had. That’s why everyone’s here.”
Shock. Disbelief. Denial.
These words filled the air as friends remembered first hearing of Kierstead’s death.
“It felt like a dream,” Patrick Kenny said. “It still does feel like a dream.”
But for John Kenny, the vigil provided some closure.
“At least today it’s becoming a little bit more real, a little bit more concrete,” said the senior from Aurora studying political science.
John Kenny knew Kierstead since he was in high school, and Kierstead was over at his house almost every day last school year, he said. They eventually became housemates in August.
It was the morning before Thanksgiving and John Kenny woke up around 7 a.m. to the sound of his parent’s installing new floors in their Aurora home.
He said he couldn’t sleep from the noise, so he checked his phone and saw a message with a picture of his house on fire.
John Kenny said he immediately called Kierstead but couldn’t reach him. He shrugged it off, saying Kierstead didn’t usually answered his phone right away anyway.
“That hour went by,” John Kenny said. “I started to realize more and more … time kept going and going.”
Then he received the news that a body was found in their home.
On Monday, authorities identified the body as Kierstead. A cause of the fire has not yet been released, though foul play is not suspected, police have said.
Four days later Leia Ruebling, a sophomore from Springfield studying international studies and German, stood in front of the now abandoned home passing around a pot of hot chamomile tea — Kierstead’s favorite.
Ruebling said she and Kierstead spoke about death in casual conversation about a month before his passing. He told her he wanted people to listen to his favorite songs, drink tea and celebrate his life.
“I feel like this was a really good depiction of what Alex was,” Ruebling said as she passed out tea to those gathered at the home Friday. “He was always the hot cup of tea on a cold day.”
Ruebling considers all those who met Kierstead lucky just for being able to have conversation with him, remembering a hike she went on with Kierstead to the Little Grand Canyon.
At first, Ruabling said she was not impressed by the hike.
“I was like, ‘Alex, where’s the rocks? This place isn’t very cool,’” Ruebling said. “He was like, ‘Leia, have you stopped to look? Look at this place — it’s beautiful.’”
“He was able to take something so simple and make it into this beautiful, elaborate creation,” Ruebling added.
Many other friends at the vigil had memories of hiking with Kierstead.
Hein recalled the many days they spent hiking together. He said the two would sometimes take to the trails as many as four times a week.
But Ruebling said it was the quiet moments she remembered best. She frequently visited Kierstead’s house to cook and make tea.
“We could sit in silence, and that itself would say a million words,” she said.
For Ryan Rambow, a childhood friend of Kierstead’s who lived two doors down from him growing up, it was his best friend’s humor and kindness he remembers best.
He said Kierstead was able to make him laugh even when he didn’t feel like smiling.
“He went out of his way just to be really over-the-top and heartfelt,” Rambow said.
When Rambow’s girlfriend broke up with him, Kierstead called to see if he needed anything, but Rambow said he would be fine.
Soon after, Rambow said he heard a knocking on his front door. He opened it to find Kierstead holding a bundle of thyme he had pulled from his mother’s garden.
“Time heals all wounds,” Rambow recalled Kierstead telling him that day.
A memorial service for family and friends of Kierstead is scheduled for Dec. 18 at New England Congregational Church in Aurora.