The Foxley Fire - January 2011 - Steve Hatton
As some of you already know, Chris and I had a fire in the kitchen at home In January. The previous evening we had used a deep fat fryer. We usually placed it on the hob under the extractor fan. The following morning, just before going out, Chris wiped down the worktop and, without realizing it, caught one of the control knobs on the cooker switching it to high. Unfortunately, it was the ring under the fryer. Being a ceramic hob, there was no indication that the hob had been switched on. It is not until the hob gets hot that it will glow red.
Chris left the house and went shopping in Chichester. She was planning to go on to Southsea after Chichester but as it had been raining, she called in at home on the way past to change her shoes. She opened the front door and saw smoke. She realized it was a little more than burnt toast so closed the door. In a state of shock, she wasn’t quite able to remember how to use a mobile phone! Fortunately, our neighbour was in and (after checking to see if Chris had been exagerating) he called the fire brigade. He then phoned me at work. The call went something like: “Steve, you probably need to come home now! There’s been a fire in your kitchen. I’ve called the Fire Brigade”. I think it was probably the last phrase that caught my attention and persuaded me that this wasn’t a case of just getting home a bit earlier than normal and that, actually, it was time to go.
Portsmouth College is less than 2 miles from home, but I drive most days. I told my guys I was leaving, told them (in my usual understated way) something like “ … apparently we have a fire at home, the fire brigade is there, I’ll let you know how it goes”. I guess I was home within ten minutes of Nick’s phone call. Two fire engines were already blocking the street, hoses running down the road. There seemed to be firemen (and women) all over the place. By the time I got home I think the fire was actually out and they were starting to open windows to vent some of the smoke with a huge fan placed by the front door. Chris and I, and a few neighbours were reduced to standing on the drive watching firemen in breathing apparatus drift in and out on various missions. My neighbour, Nick, had already started producing cups of tea for all and sundry.
After a while, the head honcho came over and said they had made things safe, and we could go into the house to view the damage. If you have seen the after effects of a fire you will already know, it was dark! Much of the kitchen ceiling had fallen-in or had been raked down. Some of the cupboards had been taken (fallen) from the walls and they together with the contents were stacked outside the back door. The smell was almost overpowering. As we went through the rest of the ground floor, everything was covered in thick black soot. Upstairs was the same. Everything covered in black. At first I thought it was just soot that would “brush off”, but in fact, it was a combination of burnt fat, melted melamine (from the kitchen units) and melted plastic (from kitchen units and wiring) that was very effectively “bonded” to the walls.
After the fire engines had left, we sat in Nick’s house deciding what to do. The first task was to try to remember who we were insured with. 11 months previously, I had finally got around to moving insurance companies, the problem was, who was it. We had been with Zurich for who knows how long; each year I had meant to change but the renewal always came at a busy time (just after Christmas). I had a vague feeling it might have been through Saga, so we phoned them. Fortunately, it was with Saga, and they passed me on to Allianz, the insurance company that had underwritten the policy. They in turn gave me a claims number and the number of the company that would handle the claim. All very straight forward.
Next? Well, by this time friends and family were starting to turn up to view the damage. Wandering around the house, I started to pick up things to rescue, my computer, cameras, laptops, backup hard disks, etc. Most of this I stored in the boot of the car ready to take into work to clean and recover. A few “valuable” items I put in the garage. We took lots of photos, but by 4:00pm there was not much else we could do as it was getting dark – and we had no electricity.
We went to my daughters that evening, who fed us. Chris went to Tescos and bought a few basics, washing stuff, etc, a change of clothes, etc. Apart from what we stood up in (and my computer) we had nothing. After we had eaten, we went to Chris’ sister’s house who put us up for the night.
The following day, the Saturday, we contacted the insurance company and we arranged to move into a hotel. We booked into The InnLodge, a few minutes away from home. We had an “executive” room, that meant it had the bed area, and a sort of loung area with two seater settee, a small table and chairs, and of course, the bathroom. It was actually very comfortable, and considering we ended up being there for four weeks, it was more than adequate for our needs. Plus, being part of the Greene King chain it had a Hungry Horse pub attached – hotel guests had access to a lounge area with the Hungry Horse menu available.
On the Tuesday following, the first loss adjuster turned up, took lots of photos, advised on what to do and so on, and informed us that the damage was beyond his remit so he would pass it on to a more senior loss adjuster. The new chappie turned up the following Friday. By this time I had managed to find out that the buildings were insured for £500,000, whilst the contents of the house was insured to a value of £50,000 – new for old, except clothing and linen that was an “as-is” basis. We had also started to look for rented accommodation. We cancelled our phone, suspended the gas, electricity, water, rates, etc.
The insurance company arranged for contract cleaners to come assess damage to the house, damage to the general contents and a separate contractor to assess damage to clothing and linen. The loss adjuster arranged for us to appoint a surveyor to act on our behalf in arranging and managing the contract to carry out the repairs.
There was a slight break in events while all this happened, and just as well because we initially had great difficulty in finding somewhere to rent. We did find two places that suited but they both “fell through” before we were able to move. Eventually we were fortunate in renting a neighbour’s house just around the corner from our own home. The big advantage of this was that it was fully furnished so we did not have to worry about finding furniture – and everything else one takes for granted in a house … cutlery, glasses, bottle openers, TVs, tables, potato peelers etc. We moved in in the middle of February having spent four weeks in the hotel. It was another four weeks before I eventually got the broadband connected.
By now the Surveyor had produced schedule of work for the house repairs and had arranged for the tender request to go out to a number of contractors. A cleaning company who specialise in insurance cleaning had been and the chap had gone through our clothing to identify what could potentially be cleaned and what was not economically viable. At this point it is amazing how cathartic it can be to tell someone that whole armfuls of clothes are no longer needed. Suits that no longer fit (I’ve put on a pound or two in the last few years), shirts that are no longer needed, trousers that are a little tight, etc. I should point out that I was due to retire at the beginning of March and Chris was being made redundant and hence retiring at the beginning of April, so the it was rather an opportune time to “rationalise” our wardrobe.
April came around and Chris and I had a holiday planned with Chris’ sister and brother in law. The day before we left we had a meeting with the loss adjuster and the surveyor to agree who to award the building contract to. We had arranged for a few items to go off for professional restoration – a grandfather clock that has been in Chris’ family for nearly 300 years, an upright piano, and a child’s captain’s chair that belonged to my great grandfather, and some clothing had gone to cleaners. We had also removed several items that we felt we would be able to clean (the loss adjuster had agreed that we could “pay ourselves” for DIY cleaning).
With everything “sorted” we left for America and a three week, 3000 mile drive from Chicago to Santa Monica along Route 66.
Whilst we were away the first workmen arrived to clear and clean the house. This meant that ALL the furniture, and everything that we had assessed as unrecoverable went into the skip. The included fitted wardrobes that were less than two years old, a leather suite just five years old, a super king sized bed, only two years old, the bathroom suite only 6 years old, carpeting, laminate flooring, etc, etc. We were really pleased that this all happened whilst we were away. I was quite sad to come home and see the skips on the drive loaded to over flowing with our “stuff”. Once everything had been ripped out and disposed of the guys set about cleaning and then sealing all the exposed plaster and woodwork. Even after 4 months the house still reeked of smoke.
Once everything was stripped out the real work started and actually went fairly quickly – and smoothly. The electrician had to complete his first fit before too much else could be done. The radiators and boiler had been removed in the clearing process so the plumber was able to start running the pipework. Several walls had to be plastered. The bay window in the kitchen and the back door had to be replaced. By August painting had started, Chris and her sister had decided the colour scheme for the house and the painters just had to follow the pattern, which they did very well. Once the paint was on, the laminate flooring could go down and the skirting fitted. The kitchen and bathroom were fitted and equipped. Radiators were hung, doors fitted and finally the light fittings and switches, etc.
It was a bit of a rush in the end trying to get everything completed before our rental on the house we were staying in was up, but the few tidying up bits were completed after we moved back in the first week in September. The only thing that did slip though the net was, owing to a mix up over who was actually going to place the order, the fitted wardrobes were not completed until the end of September.
During July and August we (well, mostly Chris) went out and ordered beds, sofas, chairs, cupboards, curtains, bedding, etc all to be delivered in September. We also spent a fair bit of time in June, July and August shopping for plates, cups, glasses, cutlery, cookware, table lamps, standard lamps, etc, all the “stuff” one has around the house, the stuff you don’t realise you need until you don’t have it. Fortunately, because we were buying stuff over a period of time, we were able to take advantage of all sorts of offers in many shops.
Since moving in we have been “settling in” and buying the odds and ends that we had overlooked during the summer. It is only in the last couple of weeks (since the beginning of September) that we have got to the point where we are not actually waiting for something to arrive or to be done.
The final settlement with the insurance company via the loss adjuster was agreed in early October, and we received the final settlement cheque about 10 days later.
The result of all the work is fantastic. We are most pleased with our home now and have, effectively, a new house in which to start our retirement. The outcome is great – but, trust me, I would not recommend the journey to anyone. I don’t know how we would have managed if we had both been working.
Some additional thoughts from three years further down the line:
I should point out that we had been "preparing" for retirement for some time, the items that needed to be replaced in many cases were not very old. Our bed - a super king sized - was only 2 years old, as was the fitted wardrobes in two of the bedrooms (indeed, Sharpes did not need to re-estimate to do the work as they still had the original drawings and charged the same price as the original work), The leather suite in the lounge was less than 5 years old, etc.
One thing that I did appreciate was that the boiler and radiators had to be replaced - these were the original ones put in the house when we first moved in 25 years ago.
Something I had not appreciated was just how corrosive the smoke can be. The surveyor explained that all metal work had to be replaced, including electrical wiring, etc. I was surprised when he added the radiators to the list but he explained that if they were not replaced, after a couple of years we would find pin-holes developing. All electrical equipment (including my newish TV) had to go in the skip for the same reason.
One big tip - take photos of everything - ideally before a fire! We were fortunate in that the damage was mainly smoke damage. Over several days we were able to go through the house and itemise everything that we had. If the house had been destroyed in full house fire, one would be sat in a hotel trying to remember what was there.
Trying to list everything, even down to food in the fridge and the freezer, cleaning stuff, not to mention CDs and DVDs.
I had to confess to having over 70 ties - that's well over £1000 worth of ties!
And be honest with the loss adjuster!