+40 days later

Forty one days since the fire at Queens Close and I am much closer to being back to normal. I thought it would be of some interest to those that know me or at least had been following what happened there to learn a little more about what one has to do in the aftermath of such events and, with the benefit of hindsight, what lessons can be learned to mollify the effect of this kind of rare event in future.

The first few days
In the days immediately after the fire much of my focus was around reducing the forthcoming costs and cutting off as many unnecessary expenses and distractions as possible. Online orders were cancelled, energy, internet and other bills suspended and notified. I took a few days off work (too few, on reflection) and mentally walked through the flat putting together lists of possessions I might want immediately replaced and the most important items I would like to recover from the flat.

I also had to extract my car.

Both keys were in the flat, BMW wouldn’t issue new ones without documents (which were in the flat) and my car insurer (Aviva) were a little bit useless … they didn’t take any notes during my call to them and made no contact with the loss adjusters or insurers at the property on my behalf. In the end, the builders retrieved my keys and drove the car out. There seems to be no helpful protocol from BMW to issue new keys given, for example, a police statement of my ID and the circumstance. It was V5 and passport or nothing.

The sheer volume of water that had come down through the properties and into the underground carpark meant that it was covered in concrete dust and stagnant water marks. I desperately need to wash it and remove the corrosive material but all my detailing equipment remains in the property.

The property needed to be made safe, roof timbers and an leathal unsupported gable needed to be removed. This took a couple of weeks, and eventually my landlady was allowed in and retrieved hard drives, laptops and other valuables and gave me an update on the condition of the flat.

After a month
During this time I pinged around Surrey and Kent and tried to continue to hold down a job and parenting. I bought a small selection of clothes and secured tenancy at a new flat in August. I received some incredibly generous financial support from collections by friends at both Spark44 and Dare.

To-ing and fro-ing with building management, the on-site builders securing the property for the insurers and residents continued and eventually access was arranged last week (a month after the fire) at a cost of £120+ VAT* to be accompanied in to the building for 1 hour. A single hour, it turns out, to retrieve the entire contents of a 3 bedroom flat. My 70+ parents, brother and Jo turned up to help along with the builder chaperone and between three cars and a stack of storage boxes we extracted 90% of it into a storage unit during a hot and unpleasant afternoon.

* of course I’m livid about this charge which I consider to be onerous but as an uninsured tennant it’s just another price to pay for a poor decision there.

Going back to QC after 5 weeks was emotionally tough. It was a wonderful flat and a good community there. I’d quite quickly fallen in love with the view over Esher Green and the space so different from modern developments with tiny rooms, open plan kitchen diners (eugh) and clip-on balconies and so to see it so-marred by fire and water damage was distressing. My flat wasn’t substantially affected by the fire itself but the water damage was more significant than i had anticipated, exacerbated by the 5 weeks of stagnant damp.

Mould was almost everywhere, with black spores crawling over the walls. A wardrobe where I kept everything but my main clothes was soaked through. I pulled out armfulls of drenched and rancid running kit, Uni rowing kit, shoes covered in spores. I found the pile of books, cards and keepsakes from my son which I was hopeful had avoided flames all soaked and stuck together instead. His infant handwriting now disappeared like invisible ink. Books from my childhood saved to read to him in the coming years all contorted and wretched from the water which had saved so much else.

In the lounge, a solid wood mid-century unit was damp to the touch, pools of water stood on top of it. Thankfully the drawers and shelves inside were dry and a sanctuary for the tech containing my precious photos. Bizarrely, the orchids I had spent weeks trying diligently not to kill had survived perfectly happy in the humid atmosphere, although a rose I’d nursed back to vigorous life during lockdown didn’t make it. In the hall cupboard, another place I’d assumed would be perfectly fine, I found a sentimental (and expensive!) canvas holdall riddled with mildew and all-but unsalvageable alongside brand new running gear with the stench of a long-forgotten gym towel. Earlier in the year I’d edited my collection of running event medals and t-shirts down to the most important, of course these were right there in the same compromised cupboard.

Watching my Dad frantically cascade belongings in to boxes that I’d spent hours organising into need drawers and shelves brought in to focus how much things needed to change and quickly. I’ve resolved to continue my plans to slim down possessions. I can’t rationalise a single argument for having more ‘stuff’. I want fewer things all round, a simpler life.

It’s been a bit of a joke over the years that I have such a small wardrobe of day-to-day clothes, but simply buying three identical t-shirts and a new pair of identical jeans was a genuine bonus. I want to adopt the same approach to the rest of my belongings.

The days ahead
While my nomadic life and the generosity of family continues, by the start of August I should be in a new place in Esher. I might even be back commuting to the office by mid-month. Between now and then I am slowly going through possessions in storage, washing clothes (again, and again … mildew and mould are incredibly odorous and persistent). I’m replacing the wrecked stuff and consolidating the rest.

I’ll also try and track down the post that’s not been delivered for 5 weeks. Royal Mail (common to almost every other service provider) have no information on their site about what to do in the event of a catastrophe at your address. Also, try proving your ID and address without a current address and with all your ID out of your possession for weeks…

I’ll be doing several things differently and i would recommend to anyone, subsequent to my experience.

Contents insurance. A no-brainer. It wasn’t for financial reasons that I didn’t have contents insurance, I’d ‘saved’ just £16 a month by not having it for two years, but my reasoning in no-way made up for what would have been so much more helpful if i’d have just handed the entire mess and the problem over to a claims team.

Fire resistant boxes and storage. There are a number of very good value fire resistant storage boxes available and I will be using several of these in future to store the sentimental and essential paper and tech items you’d be distraught to lose. You can buy fire resistant document wallets too. They’re not infallible (800 C for 30 minutes) but they’d have given me much more comfort and certainly would have protected the pieces from my son and various backup drives and documents. Keeping originals in these with copies in day-to-day filing makes sense.

Cloud storage. Having devices that backup to devices is great when you want to reinstall with everything around you. It’s good when you lose one device, but in a fire or flood and the circumstance where you lose multiple devices in one go, that’s not viable. I’ll be backing up all my photos to the cloud in future and having physical back-ups as a fallback against Cloud failures and for short-term restores.

Grab bag. I left the flat with just the clothes i was wearing, a coat, phone and (lol) my flat keys. I’m going to buy a small dry bag and prepare a grab bag to contain, as a minimum, a spare set of car keys, charger and cable, a day’s clothes, toiletries, spare cash card (and card reader!), glasses, ID and … running gear. Leaving this in an obvious place to take under similar circumstances would have made those first hours and days much easier. More extensive lists of contents are recommended but my experience suggests a more lean selection.

Passwords. without giving too much away, I wasn’t able to use many of my accounts without the devices I usually used. I only had a work phone on me with no saved passwords in the keychain and with many accounts using 2-factor security which texted codes to a phone I didn’t have. I was locked out of plenty of essential accounts I needed in the days after the fire. If you use password and security management, think ahead to what would happen if the device you carry most often doesn’t contain all you need to log back in to the essential services.

Perhaps this helps someone down the line. I can’t say I have much helpful advice for removing mildew or smoke damage, there are better places online for that sort of thing. But as an update for those interested, perhaps this suffices.

To everyone that has been in touch, thank you so much. The practical support and gifts mean an awful lot but the words did too.

John.

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