After the Inferno

By Richard Firstman
Special to Newsday 03-23-06

In the spring of 1990, we put the finishing touches on a massive and complicated renovation of our home, a 19th century sea captain’s house on Northport Harbor. We were thrilled with the results, but very, very relieved it was over. “I never want to go through that again,” said my wife, Jamie.

Fifteen years later, on the afternoon of Feb. 6, 2005, we stood out on the street, looked up at our house and tried to process the sudden reality that we were about to embark on yet another renovation — one we could never have envisioned.

At this moment, sweaty firefighters were rolling up their hoses and moving their trucks out, neighbors were offering condolences and lodging, and through the cell phone came the sympathetic voice of an insurance man telling us to take down this phone number and that claim number — and don’t worry, you’re in good hands.

You read about fires, see them on TV; maybe you know someone who knows someone who had one. Like any other kind of calamity, you never expect it to happen to you. Jamie and I were about to find out what happens when it does.

Earlier that Sunday afternoon, with the house unoccupied, our then-16-year-old daughter, Ali, had come home with a friend and smelled smoke. She followed it up to our bedroom, where her eyes went right to a basket of flames beneath a window. The fire spread so fast — consuming curtains, clothes, carpeting and wood furniture — that it blew out the window and engulfed the room before the Northport Fire Department could get there. The flames shot though the window opening, licking the gabled roof line.

The firefighters did an excellent job of confining the fire to the bedroom, but it was small consolation. When we were allowed inside to survey the damage, it was hard to believe we were inside our own home. The bedroom was a black box with most contents incinerated or charred beyond recognition — as if a bomb had exploded.

A 32-inch television was reduced to little more than a mound of melted glass and plastic. In the bathroom, a plastic thermostat cover dripped then hardened, like something from a Dali painting. The rest of the upstairs was caked in smoke and soot. Even the air seemed black.

Downstairs, water dripped through the ceiling and collected in pools on tarps put down by the firefighters to limit the loss. Outside, a heavy wooden trunk and an exercise bicycle lay in the shrubs, where the men had heaved them. The lawn was littered with remnants of our wardrobes. I picked up a tattered section of fabric containing a zipper — all that remained of my corduroy slacks. The violence of this garden-variety house fire reminded me of a plane crash I once covered as a reporter.

When the fire was out, a member of the Suffolk police arson squad examined the bedroom and interviewed our daughter and us. The apparent source of the fire was nothing if not ironic: a carbon monoxide detector plugged into the outlet behind flames our daughter saw. Fire investigators suspected the device either shorted or wasn’t plugged in tightly, perhaps causing a spark of current to jump onto a curtain or piece of clothing.

A long ordeal begins

Anyone who has had a serious house fire can tell you that the fire itself is only the beginning of the ordeal, and in many ways it’s the easy part. It is the beginning of life interrupted. How long that interruption lasts rests largely with the company you’ve been paying month after month, year after year, just in case something like this actually happens.

If our experience is any guide — and conversations with others indicates it is — dealing with the insurance company can be a treacherous and maddening process. At its worst, it is a test of wits, wills and endurance that is not for the meek or unsophisticated. “People who don’t know how to fight get trampled,” Anthony Reitano told us, and he should know. He is a former Long Island supervisor for Allstate who now works on the other side of the table, representing claimants.

It must be said that we were quite pleased with Allstate’s service on a number of fronts. In the early going, we were impressed with the efficiency and empathy of its team of adjusters and representatives, who arrived with a $6,000 check for immediate expenses (an advance against our eventual settlement), helped arrange for our family of five (plus dog) to rent a furnished house nearby, and quickly began the process of cataloging our losses.

“I’m not going to tell you there won’t be some bumps in the road, but in the end everything’s going to work out fine,” one Allstate rep assured us during a visit the day after the fire. How true that turned out to be depends on how one defines “some bumps in the road.”

At that early point, it wasn’t the insurance company we were leery of, but the cottage industry that has grown around fire relief. During the fire, police and fire officials warned us to beware of ambulance chasers: those who monitor fire communications and show up offering services from boarding windows to preparing claims.

And they were right. At 4 a.m., the phone rang in the home of friends putting us up on our first night of displacement. The caller identified himself as a “Lt. Harris” from the “Nassau County Fire Department.” He asked if we’d boarded up our house yet — “We wouldn’t want looters in the neighborhood.”

The call seemed bogus. We live in Suffolk — and anyway, there’s no such thing as the Nassau County Fire Department. And what legitimate official would call someone at 4 a.m.? The only reason I didn’t hang up immediately was that the guy had all kinds of accurate information, including our attorney’s name and phone number.

A moment of weakness

The next day it hit me: During the fire, a neighbor had handed me her phone, saying a county fire official needed to talk to me. He was the “Suffolk County fire coordinator” and asked for information — including our attorney’s name and number. I’d given it to him. Now I realized that call had been a scam, too.

In the next few days, we received half a dozen calls and visits from “public adjusters.” These are people who represent homeowners in negotiating fire-loss claims with their insurance carriers. They take as their fees a percentage of the total settlement, by law no more than 121/4 percent but usually half that. Satisfied with Allstate so far — and thinking, naively, that a public adjuster would complicate things — we decided to deal with the company directly. We were soon to realize the lay of the land was not at all what we thought.

Like other major insurers, Allstate employs a system in which one adjuster handles the loss of a home’s contents, another deals with the structure and a third takes care of reimbursement of additional living expenses, or ALE. We found the adjuster assigned to our contents, Donna Chrisville, to be the kind of person who helps Allstate live up to its slogan. We were in good hands with her. She supervised the clean-up crew with a firm hand and had our surviving possessions picked up, cleaned and put in storage. Most important, she was conscientious and painstaking in making sure we received what we were entitled to for our losses. We spent countless hours, on our own and with her, putting together a highly detailed list, and ultimately the computer-generated catalog of our lost possessions ran more than 80 pages.

The adjuster assigned to structural loss, George Laue, showed up a couple of days after the fire and spent several hours measuring, taking notes and photographing the damage. Before he left, he said the claim was fairly straightforward: The entire second floor would have to be gutted, and water-damaged walls, ceilings and oak flooring on the first floor would also have to be replaced. He said it would take four to six weeks for him to put it all together. In preliminary talks with potential contractors, the consensus was that the rebuilding would be roughly a three-month job. If all went well, we could be back home by July 4.

We waited patiently, but after six weeks there was nothing from Laue. Seven weeks, eight — still nothing. “We’ve had a lot of fires this winter,” Laue said during one of my weekly calls. Meanwhile, we were hearing from people that we really ought to hire a public adjuster. A friend recommended Ray Maguire, an experienced adjuster from Freeport. We spoke to him; he seemed knowledgeable, savvy. We told him we were waiting to see what Allstate came up with; we’d let him know.

A four-headed monster 

When I called Laue in Week 9, he said he was almost finished with our claim; all he had to do was come back with his supervisor. On the appointed day, he showed up — not with his supervisor but with three other men who arrived in a separate car and described themselves as being in “quality-control.” The four spent a couple of hours going through the house, conferring in each room. When they were done and the others left, I asked Laue if there were changes from the way he’d assessed the claim. “Not really,” he said.

“So it’s basically the same?”

“Well, there are always some things that change when you look at them again,” he said, a bit enigmatically. I asked him what changes there were here. At this point, Laue gave the impression of someone who wished he were somewhere else. I managed to pull out of him, bit by bit, that they decided that the second floor didn’t have to be gutted — it could be cleaned. Incredulous, I brought him upstairs, where the walls were black as coal. He took a paper towel and began to rub the wall. “See, first we clean it,” he said with a hopeful smile, “and then we seal it!”

“You mean seal the toxins in?” I asked.

“Right.”

I reminded him that two months earlier he said the entire second floor had to be gutted. I asked him if the others overruled him. “No,” he said. “We made the decision together.”

I looked Laue in the eye, and without a word I physically escorted him down the stairs and out the door. Then, I pulled my cell phone out and called Maguire, public adjuster. When he came to the house, he said what we were about to go through was all too typical. Insurance companies, he said, bank on people accepting whatever they’re offered. But if you fight for what you’re entitled to, you’ll get it.

“It may take time,” he said, “but the bottom line is that they are obligated to restore your home to the condition it was in before the fire. There is no way they can do that without replacing all these walls and ceilings. We won’t let them.”

Thus began phase two of our ordeal. Maguire brought in a builder, Gene Zendler, who, like Laue, went through the house, measuring and taking notes. Like all three contractors we’d had in to give estimates for rebuilding, Zendler said it wasn’t even a question that the second floor had to be gutted. The smoke permeated the wallboard. Even if you tried to clean it and then use some kind of sealer, a sealer strong enough to keep toxins in would repel paint. Zendler said that while replacing the Sheet rock was obvious, what he would be more concerned about was what was going on behind the walls. He urged us to insist that Allstate bring in an environmental company to test for mold and toxins.

An expert we found, Jay Danilczyk of Green Circle Solutions, did a preliminary assessment, and we asked Allstate to hire him for a more thorough analysis. To its credit, Allstate agreed to have the house evaluated, but said it would bring in its own expert, Ken Coffey, who owns a Ronkonkoma company called TechClean Industries. Any concern we had that Coffey was a hired gun who would say what Allstate wanted him to say disappeared within about three minutes of his arrival. He, like everyone else, was incredulous that Allstate was suggesting the walls be cleaned, not replaced. In fact, he said, that was the easy part.

Armed with a snake-like camera to get behind walls, a thermal-imaging device and a moisture meter, Coffey found we had a significant amount of mold. He wasn’t surprised. To stop mold, he said, water must be dried within 48 hours with a special dehumidifier. Our house had been left untouched for more than four months.

That wasn’t all: Coffey and Charles Gilbert, a toxicologist he brought in, explained that the intense heat of a fire can turn common household materials such as plastic into toxins. And then there was the overpowering odor of smoke. Coffey reported to Allstate that the entire second floor and part of the first had to be gutted and that the inner walls and rafters then had to be thoroughly cleaned and treated with specialized equipment, including air scrubbers that would fill the house with negative pressure as a particulate air vacuum filtered 99.9 percent of the bacterial particles.

More waiting

Coffey’s recommendations weren’t enough to move Allstate immediately. It was another six weeks of negotiation, resistance and waiting — and even a thought or two about whether we’d have to sue just to get what we were entitled to. Atop the refrigerator in the house we were renting was one of those 200- count boxes of garbage bags. To me, it became a kind of calendar of our displacement. I watched the stack of bags dwindle and wondered whether we’d get home before they ran out.

By mid-June, it was clear we were getting nowhere with Laue. To the dismay of our even-tempered public adjuster, the Allstate adjuster was becoming contentious — so much so we decided we had no choice but to go over his head. We brought our case to the boss of the fire claims division of Allstate’s Long Island office, Roger Louise, who was sympathetic and helpful. On June 22, 19 weeks after the fire, Laue finally sent the document promised in four to six weeks.

“At the moment we realized you were not satisfied,” said Allstate’s spokeswoman Krista Conte, “Roger Louise did feel it was important to manage the relationship going forward … Our goal is to make our customers completely satisfied and make them whole, back to where they were.”

The 30-page proposal covered gutting the second floor, but it was still nothing we could agree to. It failed to adequately cover what we calculated to be more than $25,000 worth of assorted other items. Louise agreed to issue a check for the “undisputed amount,” while we continued to negotiate the outstanding items. This allowed us to sign a contractor and finally begin demolition.

Most would find it unsettling to arrive home and find the bathtub in the driveway. For us, it was nothing short of thrilling. As Coffey’s crew filled a 20-yard trash container and then climbed into white haz-mat suits to treat the house with compounds that would eliminate any smoke residue, it occurred to us that Allstate had actually done us a favor. If not for the long delay and disagreements, the sequence of events that led to Coffey’s work wouldn’t have happened. Negotiations concluded amicably, with Louise’s involvement.

Filed Under: News

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