Thursday, May 19, 2011

About fire truck chasers and collateral damage

I own a duplex on Milwaukee’s west side, about seven blocks from where I live, and it was set afire. One recent morning, while playing catch-up on putting together my neighborhood newsletter, I got a phone call.

“Are you Gregory Stanford who owns a house on 41st St.? “

“Yes, I am.”

”I can board the house up for you.”

“What do you mean, board it up? The house is not vacant. It doesn’t need boarding up.”
“It’s on fire. I’m standing right across the street from the house. Fire trucks are out here. Flames are coming out of the roof.”

So that’s how you learn about a fire at your rental, I thought as I rushed to the scene. Your calamity is somebody else’s opportunity.

As firefighters flooded the roof and the second floor with water, I found myself surrounded by contractors seeking the board-up work. A police detective rescued me.

I once covered fires as a newspaper reporter. I combed the crowds for witnesses and victims – anybody with a link to the burning structure. But I never ran into this phenomenon: contractors pitching their services. I knew about the ambulance chasers – lawyers hawking their services after a car crash – but not about the fire truck chasers. Then again the last fire I covered was in the 1980s.

The mom who lives in the upstairs flat was huddled in an alley with her two grown daughters. They confirmed what I had guessed. The fire was set, and the likely suspect was the ex-boyfriend of the younger daughter. The couple had once lived downstairs and when they broke up, the flat was vandalized, reportedly by him – an incident for which he’s facing charges.

She and he have a baby, And he had come to the house the night before the fire ostensibly to see the child, the daughter said. (I had instructed her never to let him on the premises again.) Then she spotted him the next morning in the neighborhood as she was leaving to take the baby to the day care center.

The fire investigator said the side door was kicked in, and fuel appeared to have been taken from the lawnmower I had in the basement. The fire started in the second-floor living room. Thank goodness, nobody was home. I was between tenants downstairs.

Check your insurance. I was under-insured. The last time I got the bill, I  remarked aloud that the amount of coverage listed was not enough and that I was going to get more. I was still intending to do that when the fire broke out. Don’t you follow suit.  As it turned out, the settlement I received matched the vastly deflated assessment value of the house, but it does not come anywhere close to the quotes I’ve gotten so far to rebuild.

In the opinion of the claims adjuster and the fire investigator, despite extensive damage, the duplex was not totalled. The fire was confined to the front rooms upstairs and the front of the attic. The rest of the structure suffered smoke and water damage.

The truth of the matter is that, after a fire, immediate board-up is a necessity. Contractors’ coming to you does save you the trouble of going through the Yellow Pages. The tough part is choosing the right contractor. I ignored the advice of the insurance company and instead gave work to an African-American firm with the proper bona fides – a firm I figured was outside the good ole boy’s network that leads to contracts.

In my immediate neighborhood houses remain boarded up for months, even years – giving me the impression that I had at least two or three months to weigh my options. Wrong. The city building inspector is acting wth lightning speed in my case, condemning the building and ordering it razed even as I continue to get quotes on reconstruction.
I had  kept the property in good shape, recently spending a small fortune on a new roof and a rebuilt chimney. Not too long ago, I rebuilt the entire porch, upstairs and downstairs. My property record downtown is clean.

I can’t help but think about the prime suspect. I doubt that he ever thinks about me. It was his ex-mate, not I, who was on his mind when he vandalized the downstairs and later torched the upstairs. Yes, I may be out tens of thousands of dollars, but that’s just collateral damage in his holy war against his ex-woman.

This reckless, self-centered buffoon is behind bars, where he needs to remain for a long, long time.


  1. deepest sympathy (and empathy...our fire was in 1986)to you old friend, and also floods of relief that no one was hurt. even in personal crisis, you so eloquently describe the underbelly of the human condition. I'm glad you are still writing...and really, a book would be a nice gift to humankind. also glad you are okay! sarah backus

  2. Fire is one of those catastrophic events which can cause severe damages to your property or health and if you want to restore your house then it would be great to hire fire damage clean professionals.