The Fire of 1998

Lewis and Debra Demler

Saturday, May 2, 1998.  It was one of those cool days that one sees regularly in May.  Not too cool, but comfortable.  We had spent the last 5 years remodeling the house.  The last thing left to be done to the exterior was to replace the roof.  We were ready to start on the interior.  The day before we called the roofing contractor and told him we were ready to finalize the contract for our new roof.  He was going to stop by on Wednesday to sign the papers.  We bought a new vacuum cleaner and I cleaned the family room.  Deb was going to clean the kitchen on Sunday.  We were both on-call, but it had been a quiet day.  Deb had started laying things out for our two-week trip to Yellowstone and Glacier in June.  We went to bed.  It was cool enough that we needed a light blanket.

Sunday, May 3, 1998 3:00 AM.  We were awakened by a loud noise.  The whole house shook, breaking the windows in the bedroom.  Deb thought a tree fell on the roof.  I heard a popping noise that sounded like electric wires shorting out.  I thought maybe someone had hit the power pole outside the house and that it in turn hit the house.  I decided to go downstairs and look outside to see what had happened.  I put on my jogging pants, but didn't bother putting on shoes or sock.  As I started down the steps, the popping sound got louder.  I got halfway down the steps and smelled wood smoke that smelled like pine.  I knew something was wrong.  I thought there might be a small fire, not realizing how serious it was.  The smoke detectors had not yet gone off.

I went back upstairs and told Deb we were getting out NOW! She grabbed her jogging pants and a shirt.  She also got her slippers.  She called Heidi and followed me down.  When I got half way down the stairs, I got hit with a blast of smoke and steam.  I could not see down to the bottom of the steps.  When I got to the kitchen, I grabbed the cordless telephone andI started towards the door.  The smoke was so thick that I could not see the door.  I ended up along the wall about 10 feet from the door.  I was able to follow the wall to the door and get out.

I called back to Deb.  She said she was right behind me.  Unfortunately, when she got to the bottom of the steps, she fell and lost her shirt.  She was able to get her polartec vest off the kitchen table.  She got out ok.  I told her to go to the neighbors and call 911.  I still did not see anything.  Maybe the furnace boiler had broken and that was the cause of the steam.  I tried to call 911 but the telephone did not have a dial tone.  I retried and got a dial tone.  After I reported the fire, I went back to the kitchen door.  I wanted to see whether I could see the fire.  When I got to the door, I was knocked back by a blast of steam and smoke.   Only now did the smoke detectors go off.

Deb came back from the neighbors.  Heidi was not with her.  She said she thought Heidi was with me.  When Heidi got out of the house, she went around the back of the house to do her business as was her normal routine.  She then sat down and was waiting for us.

Our neighbors came to help.  They brought a pair of slippers for me and a sweater for Deb.  They also brought a jacket for me.  We tried to move the cars away from the building.  Unfortunately, we did not have our keys.  Everything was still in the house.  We were able to move the cars, but the pickup and Blazer both have transmission locks.  They had to stay.

The firemen arrived within 10 minutes.  They were able to put out the visible fire in another 15 to 20 minutes.  Unfortunately, the fire got into the walls and ceiling.  It took about 5 hours to get the fire under control.  The house was a total loss.  At noon the Fire Marshall came.  We could not go in until the Fire Marshall finished his inspection.  Meanwhile the building inspector came around 2:00 PM and condemned the structure.  The building was no longer deemed structurally sound.  We could only enter the building for the purpose of removal of debris and demolition.  We were told we had to secure the building before we left.  That meant all the windows and doors had to be boarded up and a covering put on the roof.

We had to contract with a company that specializes in this type of work.  It was 4:00 PM and we were too tired to do anything.  We did not have any tools and materials.

Our insurance company sent a claims adjuster out immediately.  By 2:00 PM, we were given a check, which was an advance for our contents losses and for additional living expenses.

This was the start of a long, tiring ordeal.  I needed to replace my prescription drugs.  My health insurance company did not want to replace them since "it wasn't time".  They had just sent a 90-day supply and would not send any more for 90 days.

We had to start documenting our loss for the insurance company.  That meant we had to itemize every item that we lost.  We needed to list the item, purchase price, date of purchase and where purchased.  We had a library of over 2000 books that had to be itemized.  We could not just indicate how many books and use an average cost.  The inventory had to be listed by room.  This was extremely hard since so much of the contents was destroyed.  My suits, shirts and pants, Deb's skirts blouses, pants and dresses were nothing more than small charred swatches of cloth.  Was this 4-inch piece of cloth a dress or one of my shirts?

We also had to decide what we were going to do about reconstruction.  We were getting hit from all sides to sign contracts for debris removal, demolition, architectural services, building contractors, etc.  For two weeks we were in a daze.  We did everything by rote.  We did not know what day it was or what we were going to do next.  We did not have time to think.  We were too busy trying to get everything out of the house so we could start the next phase.

We finally told everyone that we were not signing any contracts.  We were going to do it all ourselves.  We had a lot of help from relatives and co-workers.  We cleaned out all the contents from the house.  We razed the structure, except for the original 250-year-old stone walls.  We designed our new house.  We decided not to rebuild, but to build a new house on another part of our property.  We negotiated with contractors and finally settled on one of our neighbors.  He is a general contractor who uses an Amish crew for most of the construction.  The trials and tribulations of building will be covered on another section of this site.

The following pictures were taken after the fire.

This picture from the local newspaper was taken the day of the fire, before we put the tarps over the roof.  Unfortunately, since we lost everything, we did not have a camera and were unable to document the first 24 hours.






We determined that this was the room where the fire started.  We could identify the metal frame from the Nordic Track and the Airdyne, but that was all that was left.  We were going to remodel this area in the summer.  We had stored the drywall and paneling in this room.  We also had our Home Automation System Control Computer in this room.


Deb would ask what different pieces were as we could not place them in that room.  Then it dawned on us that they were from things we had stored in the attic.  The fire had completely destroyed the ceilings and upper floors in this section of the house.  Everything that had been in the attic was now on the first floor.






This is a view of the family room  The fire had burned through the walls.  This was our "duck room".  We had numerous oil and water color paintings and wood carvings of ducks.  All of the wood carvings and pictures were destroyed.


When we were cleaning this room, we found a water color of a mallard hen and her family.  The picture had fallen from the wall earliy during the fire and was covered with ceiling tiles and other debris.  We sent it to a company that specializes in restoring art work.  They were able to restore "Henrietta", even thought the canvas was torn and the picture was water soaked.






This is a view of the master bedroom  A closet was on the on the left.  It was completely destroyed.  Later we had to inventory everything in the house.  The insurance company required a detailed accounting of everything in the house.


This is another view of the master bedroom.  The windows on the right were blown out by the initial explosion.






This section of the house was over 250 years old.  It was constructed of field stone with walls over 2 feet thick.  The roof consisted of 1 x 6 tongue and groove sheeting over 6 inch logs.  There was another layer of 1 x 6 sheeting under the logs.  This was then firred out with 1 x 6 dimension lumber.  The ceiling was 5/4 inch rough sawn oak planks.  The fire companies responded within 10 minutes and had the visible fire under control in another 15 minutes.  Unfortunately, the fire found its way into the ceilings.  The firemen could not get on the roof as there was too much structural damage.  One fireman fell through when he tried to go up.  They used a "water cannon" which put 6000 gallons of water a minute on the roof.  They were hoping to break it so they could get to the fire.  It took over 4 hours to break through.


This is the kitchen.  It was under the master bedroom.  The white spot on the ceiling was left by one of the light fixtures that fell down.






Heidi spent the first part of the cleanup effort in her "den" in Deb's car.  She also volunteered to stay in this "den" while the firemen were trying to control the fire.


This view of the bedroom closet gives an idea of the total destruction from the fire.  What was left of the contents was laying on the floor.  We had to use scraps of cloth to figure out what clothing was there for the inventory.  We had to itemize everything by room.  The insurance company required the purchase price as well as date purchased and where purchased, even though we had replacement value coverage on the contents.






After a bad experience with a commercial restoration company we decided to do the demolition ourselves.  We had lots of volunteers from our offices.  This is a picture of some of the volunteers from Deb's office at the hospital.


We had just dropped the roof over the newest addition to the house.  This was the section with the most extensive damage.  We had to drop the roof before we could continue with work on the rest of the house.






The heat was that bad that it melted the cases of our television sets.  This TV was in the spare bedroom.  The TV in the family room was worse, but we didn't get pictures since our cameras were destroyed and that was the first room from which the debris was removed.


This is the computer system for our Home Automation Control Center.  It was in an alcove in the room where the fire started.  The computer controlled lights and appliances while we were away from the house.  There is a stereo receiver to the right of the computer.






This is another view of the control computer after we had removed some of the debris.  It was actually under a large amount of debris from the attic.  That "protected" the computer to some extent.


This is another picture of one of the computers destroyed by the fire.  It is sitting on our chest freezer.  We saved this computer to show our coworkers as both Deb and I work with computers.






This is a picture of Deb's sewing machine and my clarinet.  We took pictures of everything so we could justify the loss to the insurance company and Internal Revenue Service.


This picture shows the remains of 4 sets of skis.  We bought new skis and poles for our 1998 winter trip to Yellowstone.  Our snowshoes were completely destroyed.






This is a picture of Deb holding what was left of her wedding dress.  This dress was packed away, not hanging in a closet, but it still didn't survive.  It was in a lot better shape than most of the other clothing.



  Return to home page