By: Jen Russon
When Coral Springs/Parkland firefighter Michael Matonak, a driver engineer and EMT tragically died last September, his wife Kelly was overwhelmed with more than grief. She and Michael had been separated for more than a year and were in the process of getting a divorce. The couple, who met as teens when they worked together at the Coral Square Mall, were still close and spoke on the phone regularly.
One of their last conversations still haunts Kelly every day: Michael told her that a storage unit containing a large number of family and career keepsakes had been auctioned sometime in June or July of 2017 when he failed to keep up the payments. He had given her a key to the unit, telling her she could take whatever she wanted once her living arrangements were squared away.
Kelly said he seemed embarrassed and heartbroken that she wouldn’t get that chance.
“He was crying, and one of the first things he said was ‘I’m afraid to tell my Mom’,” Kelly remembers.
In addition to memorabilia like home videos of his wife and kids at Christmas, and fire department knickknacks collected throughout the years, the Sentry Self Storage Unit, located on Sample Road, used to hold photo albums that belonged to Michael’s parents.
Kelly said the storage facility may also have had his Class A uniform and his badge, which at the time of his burial, no one could find it. The Coral Springs Fire Department contacted Sentry in the hope that some or all of the late firefighter’s effects could be recovered.
She admits the conversation was a blur.
“A woman from Sentry called me– I remember her name was Tracy — in the middle of making Michael’s funeral arrangements and my head wasn’t on straight to make sense of what she was saying, but it was along the lines of, she contacted the purchaser of the unit and they claim just tools were in there. That is a total lie.”
She added that Michael had leased the second to largest unit in Sentry. He had managed to cram not just furniture inside, but evidence of a public safety career that started when the 41-year-old firefighter was just a teenager in the city of Coral Springs Police Explorer program.
“Our house [when we lived together] in the Spring Circle development was packed. I am just asking to get back our personal belongings. Not the sofa sectional. Not the desk. Not the wall unit. Not the tools or kitchen supplies. Not the bunk bed. There was so much in that unit that I just want the personal stuff back,” said Kelly.
She posted pictures of the missing items on Facebook and was rewarded with a tip that someone had an old badge. But her joy was short-lived. The person on eBay who purchased it had just sold it to somebody else, and wasn’t willing to reveal the buyer’s name.
She said this was heartbreaking, as their two sons, Brayden, 13, and Bryson, 6, had not been given a chance to really know their dad, and the best way to do that was to see and touch the things that had been a part of a distinguished firefighting career.
Lovingly referred to as ‘Beef,’ Michael trained at the Coral Springs Fire Academy following his graduation from J.P. Taravella High School. His brother Glen is a detective with the Coral Springs Police Department. The Matonak family is well-known locally and has been for decades.
Married since 2002, Kelly recounts going to her high school prom with Michael. A former stewardess for American Airlines, she and her late husband saw a lot, from 9/11 to the more recent shootings in Parkland.
“I feel like we experienced the whole walk of life together,” said Kelly, who currently lives in Plantation and plans to move back to Coral Springs, where her sons attend school and she works as an office manager at an insurance company.
Speaking of her boys, Kelly gets emotional.
“There is so much stuff that my boys could have of their dad now. The people who bought the storage unit back in June or July of 2017 can’t possibly want personal pictures and videos of us. Someone, somewhere knows the people who purchased this unit and can get this stuff back to us. I am willing to pay for those items.”
These precious items include photos of Michael with their children, and a video camera with hours of footage of family get togethers.
“My youngest was only three when we separated. It would be wonderful for him to hear his father’s voice, his laugh, ” said Kelly, who went on to say that the now six-year-old is obsessed with being a firefighter.
These are big shoes to fill.
Now that the dust has settled, the family is trying to, as Kelly said, put the pieces together, adding “it’s a crazy long shot, but I have to try. I would just love for our two young boys to be able to have a little more of their daddy.”
If you have any information or leads on online auction materials that may have belonged to Michael Matonak, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Compensation will be offered to anyone who comes forward with her husband’s items.
Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.