A Fire and the Aftermath

I’m lying in a king-sized bed in a hotel, watching cable. I’ve eaten out for every meal the last two days. I won’t be charged for any of it. It feels like I’m on vacation, but if it were up to me, I’d still be at home, in my queen-sized bed, watching Netflix on the computer. This is the story of why that’s not a choice anymore.

Thursday night, while I was at a Bible study with a friend and my sister, Dexter began noticing some electrical problems. First, all of the ceiling lights controlled with a light switch stopped working. After I got home, the ceiling fan lights went out. Then, the upstairs outlets stopped working.

We tried going to sleep, but Dexter was concerned that some light switches he had replaced had caused the problem. After discovering that the light switches weren’t the problem, Dexter couldn’t stop worrying about the problems upstairs. He went upstairs to see if our roommates had any overloaded outlets that could be causing the problem. He noticed a funny smell in one room, but assumed it was from a space heater that had turned off. Since we had shut off all the fuses for the upstairs, we decided that we would call an electrician in the morning.

We texted our roommate, we’ll call him Arnold, who was still out, telling him we’d left him a flashlight on the stairs since there were no lights upstairs. We finally settled into bed in our basement bedroom at around 11:45. We heard Arnold arrive home at around midnight. Minutes later, as we were just starting to doze, we heard the door at the top of the stairs open. Arnold yelled down, saying Dexter’s name and something about a fire. Dexter yelled something in response and ran upstairs. I fumbled around for my glasses and a sweatshirt, putting them on as I ran upstairs.

Arnold told us he saw a glow from a recessed light in his bedroom. Dexter got the fire extinguisher and blew it at the light a couple of times. He went to the hall closet where the attic access was to see if he could extinguish from the top of the fixture in the attic. As he went toward the closet, I asked, “Are you sure we shouldn’t just call 911?” He went ahead and opened the passage to the attic. It was bright with flames. He yelled for me to call 911. I did, and gave the responder our information while trying to get the dogs on leashes. After throwing on a pair of rainboots, I ran outside with the dogs. The responder told me that the fire department was on its way. Dexter ran back downstairs to put on outside-appropriate clothing, and we frantically knocked on our neighbors doors to warn them about the fire. Our roommates grabbed a few possessions and then joined us in warning the other families. Then, Dexter ran inside to grab our laptop off a TV tray in the living room.

I called our friends who lived just down the parking lot. I apologized for waking them up and said, “Our condo is on fire. Can we bring the dogs over to your place?” They agreed. I dropped the dogs off with them, let them know that everyone was out safely out, and went back to see what was happening.

The fire department arrived amazingly fast–in under 3 minutes. We stood across the parking lot and watched smoke pour and flames rise from the roof of our home. My whole body was shaking, either from shock or from the cold. Neighbors came out of their homes and watched the firefighters work. They brought us blankets and invited us in for hot chocolate. We accepted the blankets, but stayed outside so we’d be available to answer questions. We prayed for the safety of the firefighters and thanked God for the safety of all the residents.

The attics in the sixplex are all connected, so it was necessary to access the attics in multiple places to make sure the fire didn’t spread. Our neighbor to the left wasn’t at home, but even after they had broken the door open, they couldn’t access the attic. They took chainsaws into our house to cut out the ceiling in the bedroom. They also cut the side of our neighbor’s condo open to access the attic so the fire wouldn’t spread. The fire was under control by 1:25 and out by 1:40, but we didn’t know this until the next day. Firefighters were there until 3:00 or 3:30, and Red Cross was there until around 4:00, giving vouchers for food, clothing, and shelter to people who would be displaced at least for the night.

Before went went to our friends’ house to sleep, the fire department allowed us to walk back inside to get a few things we needed. We grabbed my purse, our camera, some clothes and shoes, toiletries, our hermit crabs, Dexter’s large desktop computer, and a laundry basket full of meat from the freezer (worth around $400). We were so thankful that the firefighters had pushed a lot of furniture (including our piano!) and possessions out of the way and covered it with a tarp so that as little as possible would be damaged.

Thankfully, we have great homeowners’ insurance from State Farm. Our agent brought us an intial check and a bag of snacks, toiletries, and bottled water. The cleaning company, electrician, and property management are all working to start repairs. Our insurance will cover a hotel for us to stay in, and if the repairs are scheduled to take more than a month, they will find us a house. For now, our dogs are staying with my parents in Des Moines. If we get into a house where we can have them, we will bring them back to Iowa City with us.

Neither of our roommates have renters’ insurance. One of them lost almost nothing, but Arnold, whose bedroom the fire started over, lost almost all his furniture, his electronics, and his nicest clothes. They will salvage everything they want from the house this weekend. We’ll go in on Monday and work with a company to inventory all the items that need to be professionally cleaned and those that have been lost.

Although the fire really only hit one room, the smoke, water, and electrical damage have affected the whole house. We haven’t received an estimate on how long we will be out. Update 10/25/11: They estimate we’ll be out of our house for about two months. We’re staying in a hotel right now, and will probably be moving into an extended stay place or rental house so we can have access to a kitchen. The insurance company is stressing that they’ll try to find a dog-friendly place with a yard so we can bring our puppies back soon.

In the meantime, here are some pictures of the damage: