Trial by Fire
by Geraldine Sherman

(Toronto Life, June, 2003)

TANIA JANTHUR AND ERIK Mohr will never forget the day they bought their snug little row house at 21 Afton Avenue, in what real estate agents call Beaconsfield Village and many Torontonians think of as Little Portugal, near Dovercourt and Dundas. Tania, an animation producer, and Erik, a freelance graphic artist, were both in their late 20s when they scraped together a down payment on the $169,000 house. Through RBC Financial, they acquired a manageable mortgage and better-than-basic insurance from the bank's company, RBC General Insurance. On July 30, 1999, they became excited owners and ambitious renovators.

They did most of the work themselves. If they needed an expert, like a plumber, Erik usually knew one. For six months, they tore down walls, restored original lath and plaster, ripped up carpet, laid hardwood floors and rewired. They created a gleaming new kitchen with stainless steel appliances. A year after they moved in, their first child, Astrid Alice Mohr, was born, right there, in a house that had come to feel almost perfect.

At 10:30 on a hot Monday morning, July 30, 2001, the second anniversary of the purchase date, Tania answered the doorbell dressed in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet, her blond hair already matted in the heat. Enbridge Gas had advised them that someone was coming to remove an old gas line in the basement. The well-spoken young man at the door had arrived in a red convertible.

"He seemed like a really nice guy," Tania recalls, "but you can never tell if a person knows what they're doing, or if they're having a bad day." Tania led him downstairs. She was a bit concerned about the mess in the basement, stacks of boxes not yet unpacked, and asked if he'd like Erik to move some of the junk. She remembers him saying something like "No problem, lady. It'll be done quickly."

He went back to his car for a steelbladed electrical saw to cut through the thick gas pipe, returned to the basement and set to work.

Directly above him, on the ground floor, Tania thought she heard a small pop. The next instant, she heard screams from the basement: "Get out of the house! Get out!" She in turn yelled up to Erik, who was changing Astrid's diaper. He raced down, their daughter half naked in his arms. They ran out the front door just ahead of the gas man, who emerged shouting frantically up and down the street, "Clear out of your houses! There's a gas fire!" Then he pulled out his cellphone and called for help.

Erik handed the baby to Tania and ran to rouse the neighbours. The woman at 19 Afton, whose house should have been protected by a fire wall, had already seen smoke pouring from her registers. She brought out a chair and insisted that the Enbridge man sit down. "His clothes weren't burned," Eric recalls. "He wasn't on fire and didn't look particularly pink or anything, but he was really rattled."

At first, Erik thought the repairman and the house would both be OK. "We knew he'd made a mistake in the basement, but the rest of our house seemed fine." Then smoke started seeping out the windows and streaming through the roof. They heard sirens. Five fire trucks and two police cars arrived, along with an ambulance that raced off with the gas man. The police told Erik that the young man was in serious condition, with gas in his lungs and burns on his neck and arms. "I had the impression that he might not make it." Later, Erik asked how he was doing and was told the man was stable.

It seemed that no one from the fire department or the police knew, or cared, who owned the house. Erik used the phone at a corner store to call their insurance company, then returned to wait helplessly in the middle of the road with Tania and their 10-month-old. "We're here, we're fine," they soothed one another. "It's just stuff." Erik broke down once, briefly, when Peter Wall, a friend from down the street, gave him a hug.

Neighbours brought diapers for Astrid and Birkenstocks for Tania. Erik asked Peter, a CBC journalist, to get his video camera. Peter returned to shoot the crowd beyond the yellow police tape and the dozen firefighters in bulky uniforms who huddled like football players, broke away, studied the house, then huddled again. The gas main for the area had been shut off, but there was still risk of explosion. Tania knew she must be in shock, because she found it funny. "I thought, 'This is almost like reality TV.' I just couldn't connect it with something that was happening to us." She said, "I guess it'll sink in when I go into the house."

In early afternoon, the RBC adjuster, Ian McKay, arrived with his assistant. He explained that he'd just been transferred from traffic and wasn't too familiar with real estate claims. When Erik said they needed a cellphone, McKay told him to buy one and keep the receipt.

Once they determined that it was safe to enter the house, firefighters in oxygen tanks and gas masks crashed through it, wielding axes and hoses. They hurled stuff onto the front lawn: a baby seat, shoes, part of a floor. Slowly the smoke receded, and by mid-afternoon the fire was extinguished. The firefighters left; the street grew quiet. "For us," Tania said, "it was a day that lasted forever."

Tania took Astrid to a friend's place while Erik and Peter opened the front door of the burned building and entered as carefully as cat burglars. To the right, a huge chunk of wall, floor to ceiling, had been cut down to the studs. The fire had made its way to the second floor through a duct and had to be attacked on each level. In the living room, sofas, chairs and tables had been overturned and heaped in a pile. A large canvas of a dog, painted in encaustic (a mixture of wax and paint), lay partially melted. A wedding photo of Erik and Tania running across the grass appeared intact.

The two men made their way to the back of the house. The plaster walls seemed to be soaked in black blood. "It's like a horror movie," Erik said. Residue from the thick smoke, like translucent tar, had blackened the walls. In what remained of the basement, they found prime cherrywood planks firefighters had used as a makeshift floor. Photographs and paintings were scarred by fire or water. A fan lay melted onto a radio. Erik's childhood Sony TV was fused to a VCR like a big vinyl sandwich. "Looks like Cronenberg," Peter said. In the corner was the innocuous-looking gas pipe, cleanly sawed off. Erik guessed the tip had been carted away "as evidence."

Erik, his face framed by tight red curls that made him look more boy than man, told Peter that the fire wasn't the hard part. "It's what do you do afterwards." He seemed to understand even then that he and Tania would face a long, arduous task in restoring their home and their lives.

ERIK, TANIA AND ASTRID SPENT THAT NIGHT around the corner at the house of Peter Wall's cousin. Peter called them at 8:45 in the morning to say that workers were already at their place. They had given a key to the RBC adjuster on condition that someone phone before going into their house. No one did. Erik hurried to 21 Afton and stood there dumbfounded.

The insurance company had hired Alex Taylor Contracting (ATC), one of 15 companies listed in the Yellow Pages under Fire Damage Restoration. Their ad says, "Insurance contractor. Fire-Smoke & Water Damage Specialist." Three teenagers were tossing almost recognizable objects onto the front lawn, atop the mound of yesterday's burnt rubble.

Inside the house, Erik met someone named Oscar from ATC. Oscar was consulting with Ian McKay from RBC, who was making a list on his laptop of items that would have to be thrown out. He noted which parts of the house could be cleaned and which needed to be torn out. All the food in the kitchen had been itemized and discarded. Clothing was bundled up to be either cleaned or tossed out. Chairs and sofas were being loaded onto ATC's truck to see if the smoky smell could be removed in their giant west end warehouse oxygenator. "Big pieces of furniture would come out, and they would say, 'It just needs to be cleaned.' "

When Tania arrived, mid-morning, she was appalled that crucial decisions were being made without them. Insurance companies don't want to throw out salvageable goods, because they must pay for replacements. On the other hand, they don't want to pay for cleaning if objects aren't salvageable. Tania and Erik wondered if things were being thrown out that could be saved. Tania put her foot down. "We told them to bring everything back inside and pile it in the living room, even though the floor was a bit bouncy." When they began picking through piles of soaked, damaged, barely familiar items, they were told to work quickly. They were in a race against mould, the fungus that thrives in wet, warm spaces and causes respiratory problems. The faster everything was removed and cleaned, the greater the chance of stemming the growth. They set about their grim task, forensic anthropologists of their own lives.

Later that day, they received a visit from a stranger. Frank Fini, a marketing representative with National Fire Adjustment (NFA), makes his living in a profession homeowners rarely hear about until they have a fire. Fini, who gets tips from firefighters and the media, explained his company's services. He seemed genuinely concerned about the young couple. "We didn't think of him as a salesperson," Tania says, "but essentially that's what he was. He signs on new clients and then hands them over to another adjuster in the company." As Tania understood it, they could pay him to negotiate with RBC on their behalf. They weren't sure what to do but already sensed they were basically on their own.

"I think we were fooled by the television ads," Tania says. "You know, 'You're in good hands with us.' We expected to be taken care of by people in uniform. It turned out we had to do a lot of pushing ourselves, right from the start."

That afternoon, they left the mess behind and took Astrid for a walk in the park. "We had the biggest, most emotional conversation about the fire," Tania says. They had wanted to manage on their own, but now discussed whether to ask for help. "I mean, it's not like losing a wallet!" Right there, using their new cellphone, they called Erik's mom and stepdad and asked them to come from the Kingston area to help with Astrid. They needed time to learn how the system worked.

In the evening, Tania went on line searching for "fire cases in Canada." She discovered that CBC-TV's Marketplace had done a documentary on a residential gas explosion and recommended a book, Fire Insurance and You: How to Get All the Protection You Purchased, by Ray Cross, a minister whose Port Hope home had been severely damaged in a gas explosion.

Tania called Cross and asked what he thought of public adjusters. He seemed sold on the idea and had used NFA himself. He explained that most insurance company adjusters are honest but naturally promote the interests of their employers. On the other hand, as he wrote, "Public adjusters are licensed to work exclusively for the insured. Their only interest is the preparation and settlement of claims to the best interest of their clients." They receive a cut of the recovered claim, between eight and 10 per cent of total proceeds.

On August 1, two days after the fire, Tania and Erik called NFA and signed on. RBC wasn't thrilled. "They told us that if we wanted to hire them it was up to us, but it would make things more complicated and take longer." Tania and Erik went ahead anyway.

A couple of days later, Peter Newman, the NFA man assigned to their file, arrived with an assistant. Frank Fini had advised Erik and Tania to scrap everything made of untreated wood or plastic. Anything connected with their baby clothes, toys, furniture needed to be replaced, including the stroller and baby monitor. Cameras, musical instruments and paintings needed separate appraisals. Items obviously damaged beyond repair had been left in the house to be itemized and priced. Newman assured the couple their requests were legitimate, a great comfort to them.

Some insurance companies keep accommodations for needy clients, but RBC had nothing available. They suggested that Tania and Erik move into a hotel. It might have been fun for a few days, but not for long with a baby. Instead, they found themselves a decent basement apartment not far away, packed their borrowed clothes and the few things they'd bought, and moved.

Once they were in, they found the apartment unbearable. "No air conditioner," Erik recalls. "It was 32 degrees, and the baby wouldn't sleep." It cost $300 to rent an air conditioner for a weekend. Until their case was settled, they weren't sure what was allowed, so they simply did as instructed: when buying something as small as a toothbrush or renting any item, they dated the transaction, kept the receipt and hoped to be reimbursed. "I sent the company a letter saying, 'Look, this is what I did about the AC. Is this legitimate? Are you going to reimburse me?' "

At the end of August, they settled into a furnished house available by the month. It worked well. It was close to home and had air conditioning and a backyard. In September, Astrid celebrated her first birthday away from home.

BEFORE THE RESTORATION OF 21 AFTON could begin, repair claims had to be settled. Every decision was discussed and agreed upon. For Tania and Erik, it was like bouncing around in alphabet soup, with ATC teaming up with RBC, and NFA acting for them. According to Erik, they argued over every little matter: which section of a wall was to be scrubbed, where they could reinsulate, which tiles could be replaced. By October, this part of the claim had been resolved. Of total coverage of $114,000, Tania and Erik would receive about $65,000 for the house itself.

As long as they stayed within budget, they could use their own contractor or, if they preferred, stick with Alex Taylor of ATC. "It didn't make sense," Erik says, "to hire a contractor we didn't know and fill our house with ugly linoleum. We care about what our stuff looks like." They hired someone Erik had worked with before, but the job proved difficult, and their contractor was a disappointment. Rebuilding consumed huge amounts of the couple's time and energy. "In hindsight," Tania says, "we could have just let our adjuster look after everything, and whatever the renovations ended up like they ended up like."

At the end of September, Peter Newman left NFA and was replaced by Jackie Mountford, a kindly middle-aged woman who trails cologne and cigarette smoke and looks like a survivor herself. When we met, she hauled in the complete 21 Afton file; it's about five inches thick and weighs several pounds. "Theirs was a pretty typical case," she said.

When she came aboard, all that needed to be finalized were the living expenses and the schedule of loss, a computer inventory of all affected contents. Mountford did what she always does with clients: she asked them to enter into "an exercise of memory." She said, "Just put yourself in the room and try and imagine, 'What did I have on this end table? Was there a little figurine? Was there a humidor, whatever?' The stuff that's totally destroyed, that's memory. It's tough to do, especially when you've got a baby running around, but no one can do it for you."

Many things stored in Tania and Erik's basement had little commercial value but lots of meaning. People's stuff, they discovered, comes laden with memories and sentiment. "My grandmother gave me a couple of coats," Tania recalls, "gifts from my grandfather. They cost a fortune in Germany." There was a box of jewellery with a silver necklace her grandfather bought in the 1930s. It never turned up. "Someone might call a necklace like that old, but I would refer to it as priceless."

Years before she had a husband and child, Tania was asked a familiar question by a friend: "If there was a fire in your house and you could save only one thing, what would it be?" Tania's answer was the 35-millimetre Leica her grandfather had bought in 1935. During the war, it had been buried under a tree. "When my family went back to find it, they forgot which tree it was under and had to do a lot of digging. It had this amazing history for me." That camera was one of the casualties. It was badly water damaged and the leather case wrecked beyond repair. "I had it fixed, but I haven't used it yet. I'm afraid to find out if it works or not."

For Erik, his art was irreplaceable. All he could recoup was the cost of the materials and the time that went into creating his work. He listed each lost painting, the approximate price of the materials and what he would pay somebody to reproduce it, a foolish notion. How could one ever be properly recompensed?

Like most homeowners, Tania and Erik had never read the fine print on their policy, the boilerplate section that sets out general rules. When they needed to know details of the policy, they say, RBC did a poor job of explaining. "They would read sections to us," Tania says, "and we had no idea what they were talking about." NFA had assumed, without checking, that they had a year to put their final claim together. About a month after the fire, they were told they had less than five months to replace everything.

It was an exhausting exercise. Tania and Erik compiled lists of items to be replaced, brand names, where they were purchased. "Nice toaster, Eatons; sleeping bag, Mountain Equipment Co-op; Tracer opaque projector, Above Ground; Rubbermaid containers, Wal-Mart; first aid kit, Restoration Hardware; patio umbrella, place across the street from the Eaton Centre." They had to give an approximate date of purchase and initial cost on items as large as beds and as small as ballpoint pens.

Mountford took that list and, working largely with catalogues from such places as Sears and Canadian Tire, generated values for repair or replacement acceptable to her clients and to RBC's Ian McKay. "I asked Tania and Erik to look over the list carefully, and if there was something they thought was incorrect, priced too high or too low, to tell me." In retrospect, Tania feels they should have pushed for more. "We were always encouraged by RBC and NFA to agree with whatever amount was suggested. RBC would save money this way, and NFA, although they were working on a percentage, would save time if we didn't go back and forth too much." It felt like settlement by attrition.

Smoke is a tenacious enemy. The cleaning bill, for large items and possibly salvageable clothing, came to $30,000. In September, three months before they moved back home, they opened two huge movers wardrobes filled with their clothes. They ripped open each plastic bag, sniffed and examined each article. Some still smelled of gas or smoke. "The fire plus the cleaning changed the integrity of a lot of stuff," Tania says. "Sweaters were stretched out of shape." Mostly the insurance company took their word for it and added the cost of these items to their claim. In the end, they received the full amount for personal property allowed by their policy, $115,000.

Since every item had to be replaced by January 30 -- the end of the 180-day deadline -- the madness intensified. They were shopping against the clock. "It sounds like fun," says Tania, "spending all that money on stuff, until you have to buy everything at the same time: furniture, appliances, winter clothes, summer clothes, shoes, boots." It's not easy finding out-of-season items of the same quality as those you lost. They had to decide, "Do we buy any old washer and dryer, or do we do some research and try to get a good deal?" Speed often trumped judgment.

I asked Jackie Mountford if other insurance policies have such tight time restrictions. "Most companies give you a year, but more and more are switching to 180 days." Too much work, too little time. "You actually have to run out and replace a certain couch with one of like kind and quality. 'Like kind and quality' are the magic words. If, for example, you had a 13-inch black and white television, you're not allowed to replace it with a 27-inch colour, but you can slightly upgrade. But to do it all in six months? My feeling is that it really isn't sufficient. Remember, for the first two or three months after a fire, you're still in la-la land."

I asked if it was possible to negotiate a longer replacement period. "The average person doesn't know enough to ask," Mountford said. "You don't find out about this six-month thing until a fire has occurred." She asked RBC twice if they could extend the 180-day deadline for Erik and Tania. RBC refused. Even though Mountford failed to get the date moved ahead, and even though NFA seemed a little too eager to accommodate RBC, Tania and Erik think that hiring a public adjuster was worth the cost: $17,000, or about 10 per cent of the total settlement.

WHEN I VISITED THEM AT 21 AFTON EARLY this year, they seemed relaxed and happy. Tania was about to give birth to their second child. She rubbed her belly and brushed aside the cat. Astrid was at daycare. Erik's hair had grown; he now looks more man than boy. The house was back to its old self, though furnishings were sparse. There had been four couches in the front room; now there was one.

Talking about the fire, they tended to speak over one another, filling in gaps, discovering new things, exchanging perceptions in a loving way. "I think we did OK," Erik remarks. "By the end, I was able to handle pushy corporate types. I was starting to say, 'This is not acceptable' that if it doesn't feel right it's OK to say so."

"We could have seen everything as terrible," Tania says, "but we were able to have fun. You can really go through a lot if you're not harmed." They relied on the support of family and friends. At times, their relationship was tested, but they were young, with few work pressures, and they enjoyed their dislocated time together. Indeed, it was during their trial by fire that they decided, as they put it, "to grow our family." I was reminded of Wordsworth's description of poetry: "emotion recollected in tranquillity."

In the wake of the fire, neither of them had a full-time job. "I would say our work was handed to us," Erik laughs. "It was with RBC, NFA and ATC." They decided that they made a good team and together started a home business, Creative Bungalow. Their Web site reads: "We live in a small house. We work in that house: Our Creative Bungalow." Their on-line portfolio includes samples of logos, stationery and illustrations.

Tania, quick and sturdy even in her inflated condition, had a lingering cough. She'd been sick for a month and a half before developing bronchitis. "I keep thinking maybe I was affected by mould. Maybe there's still mould in our house, or in my lungs." She knows there's a government agency that will do an assessment, but puts it off. There have been too many strangers in their lives and in their home. Maybe later.

What about the gas man who mistook a live line for a dead one? Shortly after the fire, Tania asked the police what hospital he was in and if they could visit. "No one would tell us, not even his name. I guess they thought we'd have some ill feeling, but we don't. He just wasn't properly trained." Almost two years later, Enbridge still won't comment. On behalf of the company, Lisa McCarney will only say, "I'm not able to provide the information you requested. The file is not closed, as I'm sure you understand. It's not something I'm in a position to discuss." When we spoke, Enbridge was locked in a legal battle with RBC General Insurance, which was seeking to recover money paid on the Afton Street claim.

RBC is also reticent to talk. When I asked Ian McKay for an interview, he said, "I've never had a request like this before. I'd need permission from Tania and Erik, and of course I will have to speak to my supervisor and get back to you." I told him that Erik and Tania had given me permission, but he never called them to confirm. Apparently, his supervisor recommended silence; no one returned any of my many calls.

Tania and Erik considered suing Enbridge for expenses not covered by RBC. A lawyer discouraged them, saying that was "an American thing" and nothing could be done in Canada. They still may pursue it. Though they are in no way responsible for the fire, a cloud hangs over their heads. Last November, they tried to consolidate their car and home insurance. Erik called several companies. All asked if they had ever been paid an insurance claim in excess of $5,000. When he said there had been a fire and that the claim exceeded $100,000, he was asked, "Did the insurance company recoup the money?" It seemed that as long as the legal battle between RBC and Enbridge continued, no one else would insure Tania and Erik.

On February 13, Estelle Dana Mohr was born at 21 Afton. Tania's bronchitis has cleared up, she says, but now the baby is showing some of the same symptoms. "The doctor said it could be the mould in our house, but she couldn't say for sure." Further tests are recommended, for baby and house.

Meanwhile, Tania and Erik are still remembering items they'd lost. "We were talking about this yesterday," she says. "It's been like a year and a half, and we thought we had this great atlas, but it wasn't there. We said, 'Oh, yes, that was before the fire. BF.' We do that all the time: 'That was BF.' "

TORONTO, A CITY OF SOME 2.5 MILLION, HAS about three residential fires on a typical day -- 1,419 house fires in 2001. Those fires caused damage of about $42 million, which means the average fire involves a loss of about $30,000. I thought it might be prudent to revisit the insurance my husband and I have on our house. Our policy was in a safety deposit box at the bank, along with inadequate photos of our belongings I'd taken many years ago. When I pulled out the policy and for the first time read the fine print, I discovered that we, too, had a 180-day replacement clause and that our broker, in a letter dated last October, had informed us that if our home were totally destroyed our insurance would be limited to the estimated replacement cost at the time of our last appraisal, 15 years ago. She suggested a reappraisal so that the house "would be rebuilt with materials of like kind and quality regardless of the amount shown on the policy." I called our broker and asked for a reappraisal appointment, as soon as possible.

"Why so fast?" she asked. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"Don't worry," I replied. "I'm not intending to torch the place. It's just that I'm working on this article "

She said she understood and would get someone on it right away.

I sought Jackie Mountford's advice. She said we should be totally honest with our policyholder, especially if we have tenants in the house (we don't) or use part of it as a business (we do). She also said we should list every item we own, keep bills of everything we buy and shoot video of every room. All precious items -- jewellery, instruments, antiques, art, books -- should be appraised. All this information should be stored in a fire-retardant box or at the bank. She had one client, she said, who kept everything in her refrigerator crisper. When fire struck, her papers were safe. "Most people have smoke detectors or fire alarms," Mountford added, "but when they go off unnecessarily they take the batteries out, so what good are they? And sometimes people have fire extinguishers they don't know how to use, or can't find."

I asked Mountford if she had followed her own advice. She laughed. "No. I'm always going to do it next month, next year. It's like preparing a will. I'll get around to it some day."

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 2003

Return to Articles by Geraldine Sherman
Return to Geraldine Sherman's Home Page

crane image