THE WASHINGTON POST – Jake and Elizabeth Landuyt’s wedding day started off beautifully, but just minutes into the reception, someone yelled, “Fire!”
As the father of the bride was in the middle of a toast, billows of smoke seeped into the tented reception, which was held on Mackinac Island, Michigan, on May 30.
Panicked staff and wedding guests watched as thick, ashy plumes travelled from the 120-year-old house next door, which, they quickly realised, was engulfed in flames.
All 120 guests were abruptly told to leave. Almost as soon as it began, the party was over.
“It all happened so fast,” said Elizabeth, 28. “We were in shock.”
As the fire department arrived and worried wedding guests scattered around the streets, the bride and groom were speechless. Above all, they said, they were deeply concerned for the family in the scorched home on the tiny island, which has fewer than 500 residents.
Once the fire – which was caused by a chimney failure – was under control and it was clear that no one was hurt, the newlyweds decided to take a walk alone. They strolled to the nearby church where they had just said “I do” to find a moment of solace amid the commotion.
“We were just thankful that everyone was okay, and we were just trying to accept what happened and appreciate that we still had a beautiful day,” said Elizabeth, a healthcare software analyst.
Still, “we didn’t want it to be over,” said Jake, 28, an industrial engineer. “We were trying to prolong whatever wedding was left and hold on to the positive.”
So, Jake played their favourite song on his cellphone and grabbed his wife’s hand. As She’s My Kind of Rain by Tim McGraw echoed through the hollow church hall, the couple, who met in their junior year at the University of Michigan and now live just outside Detroit, shared their first dance.
Little did they know, though, that they would soon have a proper first dance with all their family and friends present. As the couple swayed slowly in the vacant church, an army of wedding guests, strangers and local business were rapidly rallying to re-create their wedding reception at an entirely new location.
The effort began when Brandon Sheldon, the general manager of Mission Point Resort, which is three blocks from the original venue, walked by the burning building – and spotted the crowd of people outside wearing wedding attire.
Sheldon, on his day off, called the CEO of the resort, who agreed to invite the entire wedding party to resume the celebration there – free of charge.
“We were fortunate that we were in the right place at the right time, that we had the space available to use,” Sheldon said.
Since the resort, which is where the couple was staying that weekend, wasn’t adequately staffed for a wedding, the team that was there that day jumped in to make the impromptu event go smoothly.
“We had a bellman who offered to be the bartender, we had a housekeeper who just finished her day and ended up bussing all the tables. Security staff were hauling beverages and goods from our warehouses to the event space,” said Sheldon, who also worked that evening.
Offering up the venue “was the right thing to do”, said resort Vice President of Sales and Marketing Liz Ware. “It came from the heart with no expectation.”
Once the new spot was established, wedding guests, passersby, and several local stores pitched in to bring the party back to life. Since there are no cars on the island, people hauled everything for the wedding – from food to decor – on foot and by bicycle.
“It was this lovely group effort to make things happen,” Ware said.
When a separate hotel near the original reception caught wind of the revised reception plan, the owner offered up his kitchen – and staff – to help finish cooking the partially prepared meals for the wedding guests.
“We pulled six staff from dinner services and we finished off cooking the meal,” said Todd Callewaert, owner of the Island House Hotel.
Naturally, the sudden surge of dishes that needed to be cooked slowed his restaurant down that night, Callewaert said, but nobody minded.
“Neighbours are neighbours,” he said. “There’s no competition between anybody. We’re all in it together, that’s just how we operate.”
Tim McCleery, the chef at the Mackinac Island Yacht Club, where the reception was originally held, said he was very grateful for the support, though he wasn’t the slightest bit surprised to receive it.
“It was an island effort,” McCleery said. “In a crisis, everybody came together.”
His staff, as well as those at the Island House Hotel, carried numerous hot trays of halibut, filet mignon, mashed potatoes and asparagus on luggage carts, down to the makeshift reception, where guests and locals were configuring the pavilion to make it work for the wedding.
Several nearby shops and restaurants contributed to the event by delivering plates and utensils, flowers, linens, and other decorations to spruce up the space. People also transported some items from the original venue, including the cake stand, centrepieces, a guest book, and University of Michigan seat cushions – a nod to where the couple met.
“People put it all back together within an hour or so,” said Kate Darrow, 23, the maid of honour and the bride’s sister. “By the time everything was set up, it seemed like the fire was a whole different day.”
In fact, “if I had walked up and saw it, I would have thought they planned on having the wedding there the whole time,” said Andrew Smith, 28, one of the groomsmen. “It all came together, and it ended up being perfect.”
Once the room was transformed and the guests were seated, the only thing missing was the bride and groom, who were still in the church, and had no idea that a second reception was being orchestrated.
Two of the groomsmen went to get the newlyweds.
“When you’re ready, we’ve got a new party down the street,” they said.
The couple wasn’t sure what to expect: “We didn’t know if it was going to be a handful of our guests or the whole wedding party,” Jake said.
They made their way to the resort, and when they entered the pavilion, “I was in disbelief. My jaw dropped,” Elizabeth said, adding that both she and her husband were instantly in tears. “It was so beautiful.”
Her husband called the moment “completely overwhelming”.
“There were so many people who just did whatever they could to help,” he said, adding, “It’s impossible to describe how much love we felt in that moment, and still feel now. It’s really special to have a community come together like that.”