Finding Normal After the Disaster: Westfield Lightning Fire
Westfield family’s roots prove stronger than lightning
October 1, 2013 by Lisa Renze-Rhodes
Warm brownies cooling on granite countertops in Robin Kelly’s kitchen send a deliciously decadent aroma wafting across the summer sun-filled room. For the Westfield Angie’s List member and her husband, Tom Barbera, baking, monitoring their two children’s homework, even folding laundry provides welcome, reassuring reminders that life eventually returns to normal after a disaster. Two summers ago, when a lightning strike to the chimney sparked a fire that destroyed their home and killed their 14-year-old pug, Belle, their family’s life plunged into turmoil. “If we had all been home, if it had been at night …,” Kelly says, her voice trailing off.
A bad thunderstorm struck their Centennial neighborhood home near 156th Street and Springmill Road on that June morning, Barbera says, while he and Kelly worked and their children attended summer programs. “Thankfully,” he says, “[the fire] produced a lot of smoke,” which billowed out from the garage and caught the eye of a watchful neighbor, who immediately called for help. Believed by Westfield Fire Marshal Garry Harling to be exacerbated by Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing or CSST, the flames blasted an approximately 8-foot wide hole in the floor of the main, great room area right off the front hallway. According to court documents filed in Hamilton County, investigators determined that the energy from the lightning strike surged through improperly grounded CSST in the family’s home, punctured a hole in the line, ignited the natural gas inside and caused the fire.
That lawsuit is one of several filed in Indiana and around the country against Omega Flex, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of the CSST tubing, says Anthony Morrone, the attorney representing USAA insurance. He filed the suit to seek repayment to USAA of the $430,000-plus claim that resulted from the Westfield fire. At press time, no trial date had been set. Timothy Scanlan, general counsel for Omega Flex, says CSST is a safe product when properly installed, but he declined to comment specifically on the pending litigation.
Once firefighters got the fire under control, Kelly says she and Barbera began retrieving irreplaceable items, such as a computer hard drive with about 22,000 photos, the children’s baby books, Kelly’s wedding dress and her great aunt’s china. “It was shocking, trying to assess, ‘What is the next step?’” Barbera says.
The other immediate concern, he says, involved trying to explain to their then 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter what happened. “We waited as long as we could before we picked them up,” he says. “We told them we had a fire and that Belle died. We didn’t let them see inside the house.” Kelly says the family stayed with her parents for a few days, and then rented a home in the same neighborhood in which they live, so much of the kids’ routine remained the same.
That’s a move lauded by therapists, including Janice Gabe, president and owner of highly rated New Perspectives of Indiana in Indianapolis. Gabe says helping children stay connected, such as returning to the same school or neighborhood, minimizes the likelihood of causing additional trauma. “Keeping them as intact as you can to the support system they had … That’s important,” she says.
Next came the decision to either rebuild their home or buy a new one. “I knew even from the second night that selling was not something we wanted to do,” Kelly says. Her husband agrees. “The neighbors were great,” he says. “We love this street, we love this neighborhood, we love the schools. We wanted to rebuild right here.”
Then the search for a builder began. “I was on Angie’s List within a week or so,” Kelly says, and settled on highly rated Fentress Builders, an Indianapolis-based contractor who specializes in complete disaster restoration. “One thing I liked about Fentress is that it was clear someone was reading the reviews,” she says, adding that the company responded to each one. The team’s “can-do” attitude, their history of successfully completing large projects — a non-negotiable item — and the glowing reputation of Fentress project manager Mike Strong sold the family on the company, she says. “He’s just down to earth. He tells you the truth, he doesn’t pull punches.”
Part of the rebuilding process includes deciding what to keep and what to pitch, but the ferocity of the fire made many of those decisions moot. Even things like a few afghans Barbera’s mother made couldn’t really be saved, so the family decided against wasting money on cleaning attempts.
The insurance company’s investigation into the fire’s cause delayed the tear down on the house by one month, Kelly says, and the family stayed in the rental home for a total of about nine months. The opportunity to rebuild meant Kelly and Barbera could reconsider what worked in their floor plan, make desired changes and work with Fentress to meet their family’s needs. Though his company specializes in restoring clients’ disaster-stricken homes, Strong says it’s important to first empathize with their loss. “As soon as you walk in the door, you feel it,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Gosh, how do you make this better?’ You promise them their house will be better.” He says he totally gutted the interior of the house, replacing everything except the home’s exterior walls and roof.
Changes for better living included capturing more space for the kitchen/great room area, expanding the closets in the kids’ bedrooms, and creating what Strong calls Kelly’s “bowling alley” — a huge master closet created from unused space above the garage — which now provides more useful storage space in the home. “You have to listen to the client,” Strong says. “Both Robin and Tom had a good idea what they wanted. It was a lot of fun.” And rather than replacing the CSST-type of gas line in the home, Strong says Fentress installed black malleable iron gas pipe, the builder’s preferred line for functionality and safety.
For their part, Kelly and Barbera say they mourn the loss of their dog, but are glad no one else got hurt. “We’re thankful to God that we all survived,” Kelly says.
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