Smoke On The Water

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Last Thursday my entire life was turned upside-down. Let’s start from the beginning and inspect this horrid yet true tale.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002 Jenn and I got a notice on our door that at 12:00p on Thursday the 20th a company would be in to perform routine cleaning on the gas fireplace in our apartment. (I think you can already see where this is going. Humor me.)

Thursday, June 20, 2002 6:00p - I arrived home from work. Jenn was on the couch watching TV, having been home for maybe half an hour to forty-five minutes. As is my usual routine, I went into the kitchen to wash my thermos. As I set my thermos in the sink, I noticed some grime on our kitchen counter. It looked like it might have been some overspray from the frying we had done the night before but had missed during the cleanup effort. I got a washcloth out, wet it a bit, and commenced scrubbing. All it did was smear.

So I got a little bit of dish soap. Still smearing. Finally Jenn came in with the Lysol orange cleaning spray and sprayed down the counter. With a considerable amount of elbow grease, the counter finally came clean.

Then we noticed the floor.

I can’t begin to describe it. It looked like someone had tracked a thin black paint through the kitchen.

A quick (and then not-so-quick) inspection revealed that there was a layer of fine soot-like dust covering everything in our apartment.

Now, when I say “everything,” I mean everything. This isn’t an exaggeration. It was on the bookshelves. It was on our new white silk lampshades. It was on our pictures. It was in the frames. It was on - and in - all of the electronics. It was on the walls. In the carpet. On the ceiling. On the cat. In the cupboards. EVERYWHERE.

The more I saw this, the more I panicked. I was in shock. How do you even comprehend the level of damage done? This is, well, pretty much smoke damage.

6:15p - Called the apartment “maintenance emergency” pager number and asked for the assistant manager, Meg Naglee. The pager company, of course, didn’t have a record of her. And, as luck would have it, she’s the only on-site manager-oriented person that Jenn or I knew of; the apartment manager we were used to dealing with, Stephanie, had recently resigned. On the fleeting chance it would work, I asked for Stephanie instead. The pager company did have record of Stephanie and rang the pager.

6:24p - Larissa from Richland Terrace called. Apparently, she’s the new owner of Stephanie’s pager. I explain the situation in as great a detail as possible. She said she’d try to page Meg.

7:09p - I was on the phone speaking with Larissa when Meg called and left a message on my voicemail (I don’t have call waiting). She didn’t leave a number, but said she’d call back later.

7:20p - I called Larissa in an attempt to understand what I should do about eating since we couldn’t prepare any food in our kitchen. She told us to go out to eat and save the receipt; we could get reimbursed for it.

7:30p - Meg called back. She told us she’d be over at 8:30a on Friday since there was nothing she could do about the situation Thursday night. We accepted that and went to dinner.

Friday, June 21, 2002 8:30a - Meg arrived to inspect the damages. (I stayed home from work on Friday to deal with this fiasco.) She took the receipt from the previous evening’s dinner at Izzy’s Pizza and looked around. She agreed that the dust was most insidious. She said that she had left a message for her boss, but he hadn’t called her back yet. She would continue to try to get ahold of him as well as All-Ways Warm Inc., the fireplace company that did the cleaning. She did mention that All-Ways Warm Inc. wouldn’t open until 9:30a. Fine.

10:00a - Meg called. She said she would be over at 11:00a with a representative from All-Ways Warm Inc. She also mentioned she still hadn’t heard from her boss.

10:08a - I got a little restless not being able to clean, and daytime TV sucks, so I called my renter’s insurance agent, Mariko Locke of State Farm, for a little advice. I spoke with a nice lady there named Christina who told me not to operate appliances or electronics because it may not be good for them. Oops - I had already watched TV. I guess I never thought of that. Anyway, Christina recommended Dow Columbia, a local smoke and water damage restoration firm, to me to come in and clean. I took down their information in preparation for giving it to Meg and the All-Ways Warm rep.

11:00a - Meg arrived at my apartment with Ron Buchholz, the owner of All-Ways Warm Inc. Ron did (what seemed to me) a very light inspection (everything I showed him seemed to be a surprise to him, so I still don’t think he realizes how far this stuff got) and offered the services of a general cleaning company. I explained that I didn’t feel just any cleaning company would be able to clean things to the level they would have to be cleaned and requested that Dow Columbia or a comparable smoke damage restoration firm be contacted to do the job. He said he’d make some calls and call me back.

11:15a - Meg returned to my apartment and gave me the $20 from the previous evening’s dinner. She recommended that, if I did any cleaning at all, it should only be as minimal as possible since the cleaning was the responsibility of All-Ways Warm Inc.

1:35p - Meg called. She told me she would call a general cleaning firm to get the major stuff (countertops, kitchen floor, etc.) and would get back to me on that. That way Jenn and I could at least live in our apartment while we looked into getting a smoke damage restoration firm to do the detail work.

2:15p - Meg called. She said that Kay the cleaning lady would arrive at the apartment between 5:00p and 5:30p. She also said that Dave from a local carpet cleaning service would be in on Saturday the 22nd at 11:00a to do the major walkways of our carpets so we wouldn’t be tracking the grime around anymore.

3:40p - Meg, Ron, and Ron’s assistant, Susan, came over to the apartment. Susan did all the talking. She offered me the option of either a general cleaning service or making me deal with the cleanup through their insurance and waiting until Monday for a claims adjuster to come over. I explained again that a general cleaning service would be inadequate to service the restoration portion of things so accepted the offer of dealing with it through insurance - the only other option left open. Susan tried to convince me otherwise, but I continued to attempt to explain that general cleaning is only part of the solution. They all left and called off the cleaning service and carpet cleaner that were supposed to arrive to alleviate some of the pain.

4:45p - I attempted to call Zurich, the insurance company for All-Ways Warm Inc., to see if I could schedule the appointment with the adjuster. After sitting on hold for 52 minutes, I realized this for what it was - Zurich doesn’t tell you the company’s closed or that you’re calling after business hours, they just put you on hold until you go away. I was less than pleased.

Saturday, June 22, 2002 9:20a - Decided to attempt to call State Farm again to see what they think I should do now that the weekend was upon us. I spoke to a representative from their “Good Neighbor” service who was, unfortunately, unqualified to give me the aforementioned advice. I left a message there for a more qualified representative to call me.

9:45a - Got a call back from a “more qualified representative” at State Farm who was also unable to provide me with advice. The best she could offer was to leave a message for my agent to call me on Monday, which, I explained, would be a little late.

6:15p - Went to my friend Aaron’s graduation party. While I was there, I spoke with a friend of my parents that I have known for a looooong time now. He is a building contractor and owns apartments, so I asked him for his take on things.

Now, here’s where the tables start turning, in my opinion.

He said that the ultimate responsibility for my losses and ensuring that the apartment is in a livable condition resides with the property owner. My understanding of how it works is this: The property owner contracts with a property management company to take care of the paperwork and dealing directly with tenants. The management company then subcontracts out certain maintenance tasks, like the cleaning of fireplaces, to other firms. I, the tenant, have no direct agreement with any of these subcontractors, so I should never have to deal with them. Besides which, I have no authority as a tenant to authorize repairs or restoration on any facilities-related items (walls, carpets, ceilings, appliances). If the property owner designates the management company as an authority that can deal with problems, then I deal with the management company. If not, I deal with the owner. Never do I need to deal with any maintenance firms.

That put things in a new perspective. What that boiled down to for me was that, once I established my position with the management company, I could get the ball rolling regardless of what Zurich insurance had to say, and it was the job of the management company to chase down All-Ways Warm Inc. and Zurich. Much, much better.

My parents’ friend recommended that Jenn and I write a letter stating our position and our requests, then send it to the property owner, the management company, and Meg. After that, start calling and get things running.

Sunday, June 23, 2002 Jenn and I sat down over the course of Sunday and wrote the letter asking for a restoration firm to come in and deal with things. We also asked to be reimbursed for meals because we couldn’t cook in the kitchen; a bath and medical inspection for the cat to make sure she’s okay after ingesting all this grime by cleaning herself; reimbursement for any expenses in the event we have to move out of our apartment temporarily while the cleaning crew is working; and reimbursement for any time we would have to miss from work because all this happened.

Monday, June 24, 2002 9:20a - I called Meg and told her about the letter and our new position on things - that the management company should deal with Zurich and that we would deal with the management company directly. She was very adamant that Jenn and I “chose to deal with the insurance company rather than get a cleaning service in.” I agreed that we had chosen that option, being the better of the two options provided to us at the time, but a third option should have been presented that wasn’t - that was the option I was now choosing. I asked her for the main address for HSC Real Estate, the property management company in charge of my apartment complex, but she claimed not to have that information. I also asked for her boss’s name and number but she refused to give me that. I finally asked for the name and contact information for the apartment complex proper, and she said she didn’t have that information either. I faxed her the letter and began the research.

Many phone calls later, between 9:20a and 11:00a… - I called several different title companies in the area to find out the owner of record for the apartment complex. One place gives me the name “Garden Park Associates,” but the address provided turns out to be for the IT department of a local Kaiser Permanente building. Weird. Another place actually ends up researching the taxes on the apartments and it goes to Citicorp Vendor Finance Inc., which makes more sense to me anyway. I fixed the address on the letter to be directed to both “Garden Park Associates” (just in case) and Citicorp. Fine.

11:40a - Called HSC Real Estate myself, since things are just not moving along fast enough for me. Left a message for Joe Adrian, the asset manager in charge of my complex, to find out what his fax number was and see what his thoughts on the situation were.

12:26p - Jenn called Zurich and spoke with Jonnie, an agent there. Apparently, Zurich had a claim filed but did not have any of Jenn or my contact information. How convenient. Jenn provided all the phone numbers and addresses they needed and Jonnie said they would call us back.

2:30p - Called HSC Real Estate again because no one had called me back. Got ahold of Joe and told him about our letter. He already had a copy, faxed to him by Meg. Fine. He, like Meg, was fairly adamant that Jenn and I had “chosen to deal with Zurich.” I pointed out that there was no way a standard cleaning service would do the job we needed done, and he would have to agree that were he in my position, he would insist on full restoration as well. I also insisted that this process was moving far too slowly for my liking, and put forth the points that I don’t have the authority to deal with any of the facilities-related restoration, nor did I ever have any contract or contact with All-Ways Warm Inc. to begin with. I have a contract with HSC, so HSC has to make good on things. After struggling with this for what I felt was far too long, Joe finally agreed to have Meg schedule Horizon Restoration, another local smoke and water damage restoration firm, to come in and look at the damage. I agreed that this was, finally, an acceptable solution.

3:15p - Meg called and told me that Horizon Restoration would be at my apartment at 4:00p. I told her that, yes, someone would be home to greet them. I quickly called Jenn, who was able to leave work to go speak with them.

4:00p - Kitty from Horizon Restoration shows up at the apartment. Meg wasn’t in the office when they stopped by, so they came up to the apartment by themselves. Fine. After around 45 minutes of inspection, they explained the depth of the damage to Jenn:

We have to get rid of all of the food we have in cardboard boxes - cereal, Jell-O, Rice-A-Roni, etc. The soot-dust stuff goes through cardboard. The lamp shades may or may not be able to be restored. The pictures and frames will all have to be detailed, though, thankfully, the dust most likely didn’t get behind the glass. All the electronics in the room will have to be sent out for sonic cleaning. Everything’s got to come down from the walls and moved out of the room and the whole room has to be dealt with. Everything has to come out of the kitchen cupboards and be cleaned.

Kitty seemed surprised we were still staying in the apartment, too, in the condition it was in. When Jenn told me about all that, I felt so… vindicated. Finally, someone who sees the damage that was done for what it is! Jenn asked Kitty why other apartments hadn’t reported such problems. The answer: “Not many people live as clean as you do.” Wow. I can’t even imagine. This stuff is pretty darn gross. Living in it is not even an option to me.

Kitty left and said that she could get a cleaning crew in the apartment cleaning as soon as 8:30a the next day as long as they got approval from the apartment complex. She left and headed back down to the office to speak with Meg about getting things under way.

Tuesday, June 25, 2002 9:45a - (Now.) That’s where it sits. I’m still waiting to hear back from either Horizon Restoration or Meg to see when the cleaning company will be getting to work. I’m going to leave it until noon today. If I haven’t heard anything, I’m gonna start making calls. Things need to get moving, and they need to get moving now.