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Here Comes Treble: It Could Happen To Anyone

...Peter and Gail were waiting for us outside. From this point of view, no damage was visible, just a very damp pathway leading into the house. Inside, the acrid smell of damp burnt wood and soot filled our senses, and there was a gaping, black hole in the living-room ceiling...

Isabel Bradley tells of a disaster which has overwhelmed her friends - a disaster which brings a stern warning to every home owner.

“We’ve had a fire in our roof,” read the e-mail from Peter and Gail. “Leon, please could you come and help us work out what we need to ask the insurance assessor?”

Of course, we both bundled into Leon’s car and drove the two kilometres to our friends’ home. It is a single-story 3-bedroom home in a gated complex in a quiet suburb. We stopped at the gate, gave our name to the security guard, who phoned Gail to let her know we were there. Gail gave permission for him to let us into the complex, and we drove along the narrow, winding brick road and pulled up outside the house.

Peter and Gail were waiting for us outside. From this point of view, no damage was visible, just a very damp pathway leading into the house. Inside, the acrid smell of damp burnt wood and soot filled our senses, and there was a gaping, black hole in the living-room ceiling.

While Leon and Peter got busy with ladders, torches and cameras, examining the skeleton of the roof, Gail took me on a tour of her devastated home. The fire, which began above the lounge, spread to the roof above the study and the main bedroom.

“It happened on Friday evening,” Gail said, referring to Good Friday, the beginning of a very long, long weekend. It was now Easter Monday. “We’d been watching TV when the signal suddenly disappeared and, no matter what we tried, we couldn’t get it back. We had a fire going in the fire-place, it’s been so cold lately. Anyhow, Peter got frustrated and went to bed at about half past nine. I stayed in the lounge, trying everything I could think of, switching off, unplugging at the wall, I even phoned the TV service and they couldn’t work out what the problem was. Then I heard a noise on the roof, as if there was a sudden, violent hail-storm, but when I looked out, there was no sign of hail or even rain. Going outside I looked up and saw flames shooting from the roof of the living room. I went to the bedroom where Peter was reading and quietly told him that the house was on fire, he needed to get up. Then I grabbed my handbag, my file containing the insurance documents, found the dog and we went outside to phone Emergency Services. The national call-centre could not understand that I was phoning from Boskruin, they insisted I was phoning from Boksburg!” Boksburg is many kilometres away on the Eastern side of Johannesburg.

“They then suggested I phone the mobile phone emergency number, which I did. They understood where we were and despatched an engine from what they assured me was the nearest fire station. Forty-five minutes later, with the fire blazing and all the neighbours aiming their garden hoses at our roof, the driver of the fire engine phoned to tell me he was lost! I had to go to the main road to meet the engine and direct it to the complex. Then they had difficulty getting their huge fire truck through the narrow gates and along the road to our house. Eventually they arrived and decided against using their heavy-duty hose as the fire was almost out. They continued to use the garden hoses.

“Then the ceilings collapsed with the weight of the water! The mess in the rooms and on the furniture is all from the wet insulation material and the water.

“We contacted the insurance company on Saturday morning. They assured us that if we needed to move into a hotel, the costs would be covered, and said they would send an assessor on Tuesday, after the long weekend. Luckily our gardener and a friend of his were available to help us shovel rubble and debris out of the house on Saturday, so we can sort of carry on living here. The spare bedroom, the kitchen and the bathrooms are all undamaged, we think.”

Gail was remarkably composed. She’d typed a list of all that needed repairing or replacing, and everything they could think of mentioning to the assessor. She and I sat and chatted and even enjoyed a few laughs while Leon and Peter prowled around looking for further damage.

After examining the point where the fire had been hottest and had obviously started, they reached the conclusion that the fire was caused by an incorrectly-installed stainless-steel flue, which had been lying directly against a wooden cross-beam. Over the three years since it was installed, the continual heating had dried out the wood, and on Good Friday evening, spontaneous combustion had resulted. We speculated that the fire was the cause of the loss of television signal earlier in the evening.

A building assessor duly arrived on Tuesday morning and inspected the damage, but had to have the significance of the chimney and burnt-through beam pointed out to him. He would have been happy to put the cause to an electrical fault.
On Tuesday night, Peter and Gail were woken by the fall of a further section of the living-room ceiling, causing damage to furnishings that had survived the initial collapse.

The insurance assessor, who arrived on Wednesday morning, recommended that Peter and Gail move to a hotel, and pack all their furniture and belongings to put it into storage. Gail finally lost her sense of humour. I was surprised she’d remained cheerful for so long.

The repairs to the house are going to take two to three months, and will entail replacing the entire roof and electrical wiring system, all ceilings, many light-fittings and much of the flooring, also repainting the entire house.

Although this was certainly a disastrous thing to happen to our friends, many people have said how ‘lucky’ they were: indeed, it was fortuitous that Gail was awake when the fire took hold and she, Peter and the dog could escape unharmed; that the fire itself was contained inside the roof and that the contents of the house were mostly salvaged with a minimum of damage; that no photographs or other sentimental mementoes were lost, all their financial records were saved and available to present to the insurance company; and lucky that their insurance was up-to-date and that the company is willing to cover all the dreary and expensive business of re-building.
It will take a while for the shock to wear off, and for Peter and Gail to begin to relax.

This type of catastrophe could happen to anyone at any time. Bad workmanship is often only discovered when something goes terribly wrong. Sitting in front of a cosy fire that is safely contained in an enclosed fireplace, one would never dream of the flames bursting forth inside the ceiling, burning away the fabric of one’s home.

From Peter’s and Gail’s perspective, they could have done nothing to prevent the fire. The company from whom they purchased the fireplace and chimney installation were an established and reputable company, who sub-contracted the physical installation to a second company. Judging by the parent company’s reputation, one would expect a perfect job.

Perhaps this should make everyone aware that whenever alterations are made to our homes we should be vigilant and consider using an independent inspector.

Until next time…. ‘here comes Treble!’

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by Isabel Bradley


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