The House Fire, 1994

Most of the time in life, we only talk about the good and happy memories. The painful ones, we'd rather stick in the back of the closet or the corner of the basement and never speak of them again. This is one that I have not talked about or mentioned in years; not that I’ve forgotten, but as time went on, it got easier.

We had two young children and I had just graduated from nursing school the prior year. We had stumbled upon a great buy on seven acres of land. We owned a small starter house that we'd lived in for a little over three years and were outgrowing it, so the time had come to move up to something bigger and with land so that our children would have lots of room to roam.

Here goes the story...We bought the land in 1994 and got a few bids on a simple, colonial style, 2-story home; one that we could upgrade as we could afford to. I had a classmate whose father was getting back into building homes after a long hiatus and long story short, he had the best bid and we felt comfortable giving him the business.

The house was to take six months to build, because he worked solo. Our other little house sold in just two weeks of being on the market. We had to be out fast, so we moved into a dumpy little duplex. No lie, it was a nasty place, but it was only [supposed to be] for six months. The rent was cheap ($450), and it was close to the build-site, which meant we could keep an eye on the building progress. Little did we know we would wind up there 1.5 years!

Fast forward...six months into the building process, which then became nine months and then a year. As soon as the house could be locked up, we started storing our belongings, that we weren't using, in the garage and basement (kids toys, extra clothes, tools, patio furniture, the new lighting for the house, and I can't remember what else). At this point, we are paying rent, a monthly payment on the land, and another payment on the construction loan. Nothing was going right with the build; I won't go into all those details as that's almost another post! but let's just say there were multiple code violations by the builder.

To help speed things along, we spent countless hours at the house doing what work we could that included staining all the trim, windows and doors, and running phone and TV cables to name a few.We also stripped and refurnished a beautiful, heavy, antique stair rail and knoll post ensemble that a relative had salvaged from a turn of the century home that was being demolished.  It never seemed to end, but we wanted this nightmare to be over so that we could get out of that horrid apartment!

On May 30th 1994, the county electrical inspector slapped a red violation notice on the windows and ordered the work to stop until things were properly fixed to code, which included removing the drywall to do the necessary corrections. That day when we arrived and found the notices, the concrete workers were also finishing up the garage floor and told us what had happened. We were stunned, although not totally surprised by this news and it also reinforced the fact that we were not overreacting to the shoddy workmanship.At this point, we didn't think we would ever get into our new home, as there was still so much that needed done and fixed. The furnace still hadn't been installed, nor did we have downspout, shutters, the front porch, or even a proper driveway! We were in the drywall stages only, and did not have electric turned on yet either.

The following night as we slept, the phone rang at about 1:00 a.m. Anytime the phone rings at night, you know it's usually not good news. What I heard when I answered, are words that I will never forget: "This is the so and so fire department (there were four departments tending the fire we learned), are you building a home [insert address]"? I replied "yes, why, what's wrong"?  The man said "I'm sorry to tell you this, but it's gone; it's on fire and there's nothing we can do". I was in too much shock to even react. This couldn't be happening and we didn't know what to do.

We woke up the kids (we just had 2 at this time) and drove the 3 miles to our home site and could not believe our eyes. It really was up in flames and mostly gone; just like that, as there had been an explosion. After days of investigations, it was determined by the State Arson Bureau that the fire was indeed arson and that kerosene had been used to start it along with a bonfire of sorts built under the basement stairs, they assumed. This explains why it was gone so quickly.

I don't know when I've ever felt such disappointment, such fear and such rage. We had been victimized, plain and simple, but why? We had no enemies and this was more than a teenage prank. We lost time, energy, and money and it was all for nothing. A year of our lives was stripped away. I was happy of course, that this happened before we were in it, but this was arson, so there's no reason to think that a fire would have started after we moved in. It was an evil act. It is also a crime that is near impossible to prove, although the authorities (and us) have a pretty sure idea of who did it and why, they just couldn't prove it.

I will give all the kudos in the world to State Farm Insurance. They made the process of starting over quite easy by giving us up to a year to replace what we had lost, paid for the cleanup and thankfully we had a recent drive-by appraisal done earlier that week, so we were given the current value, which exceeded what we owed.  Bank One, who we had our loan with, gave us a new, fee-free construction loan so that we could start over again.

Local area builders came forward and offered bids to rebuild for us. At first, I didn't want to build on the same site. I never wanted to pull in that driveway and recall those awful memories. However, they were able to do such a thorough cleanup of the remains, that it was not even obvious that there had ever been a fire there. Since we had gotten a great deal on the land, we opted to move ahead and start over there.

The new builder that we chose was nothing short of amazing. He worked fast and furious to rebuild our home. He had blueprints of homes that he had built before, so we chose one of them. We moved into our new home just 100 days (November 7th) from when they started the rebuild, on my 28th birthday and with me due for our third child the following February.

We built a completely different house from the one that burned. The only things we were able to salvage and save on the second time around was the well and septic system.It was emotionally hard to get past what happened. But as with anything critical that happens to us, life lessons go with it.

  • I learned to never do business with friends.

  • I learned that there are good people who are willing to come to your rescue.

  • I learned that starting over isn't always a bad thing because we most definitely got a better built home the second time around.

  • I learned that you can come back from a bad experience wiser and more tolerant.

  • I learned that sometimes criminals will get away with their crime and there's nothing you can do about it; you just have to hope that karma bites them in the ass one day.

  • I learned that people can be very insensitive and cruel (my manager at work refused to give me time off to deal with the aftermath and to heal emotionally).

  • I learned that time does heal.

But most importantly, my kids got to grow up, explore, and play on that seven acres, just like we had planned.