Oksana went to Costco on Sunday afternoon and called me when
she got there to tell me that one of the mini-storage units had
burned down. Judging from her description, I didn't believe it
was the one that housed unit J238. Monday at lunch, we drove out
that way to pay our rent. We stopped by the storage place and
I really did think "my" building wasn't the one that
burned down - until I walked into the building still standing
and realized that the doors and hallways were all wrong.
There's a feeling you get when something really bad happens to
you. Your throat tightens up and a physical pain develops somewhere
slightly below your heart and slightly above your stomach - these
are clenching sensations that, for me, still haven't gone away
24 hours later.
After work on Monday, Oksana and I were joined by Joe and Michael
as we attempted to sort through the ashes in the hope of finding
something worth keeping. Before long, it became apparent that
the only job worth doing was searching for clues as to what was
in J238. It wasn't easy - most of my stuff was strewn about 20
yards away from the original location of the storage unit. It
seems a backhoe was used to clear a walking path for the victims
and my unit was one of the ones in the way.
Comic Books and video tapes were the most easily identified artifact
in the sodden ashes. Occasionally we'd come across a mangled computer,
a college textbook, or a video cable. My 9' tall stack of boxes
was reduced to a 2' tall pile of soot. I at least expected to
dig down and find a soggy, but unburned box resting on the cement
floor - somehow protected by the ashes above. Unfortunately, that
wasn't the case. Ash, ash, and more ash.
What did I lose? I don't exactly know - I don't have a catalog
of the stuff I've been storing in that 5' x 5' room throughout
the last year. What I do know is that my childhood collection
of comic books (~4000) was in there. All my schoolwork from junior
high to college was in there. Books. Computers. Clothes. More.
Lots more. The unit was literally filled front-to-back, floor-to-ceiling.
So much so, in fact, that I found it comical enough to warrant
snapping off a picture or two with my digital camera just a couple
weeks ago when I put a few more things inside.
I hope there is a silver lining in this thunderhead of a cloud.
Two months ago, I signed up for $25,000 worth of renter's insurance
for the simple fact that, without it, I couldn't get a "personal
item policy" on my fiancée's engagement ring. Now
I begin the arduous task of determining what it was I'd put in
storage. I have yet to speak with my USAA claims adjuster, though,
so I don't know how they'll handle my case.
Wish me luck.
Before and after pics that Oksana
and I took of the aftermath.
Update: Below is the resolution, written for my
blog about a year later.
Juneau Empire article detailing my
good friend, Derek Jenson's, bad luck.
Juneau Empire follow-up article.
Just slightly over a year ago, I had probably half of my worldly
possessions go up in flames. I posted an account of it on my web
site, but I always meant to follow that up with the (mostly) happy
Barely two months before the fire caught us by surprise, my fiancée
and I were engaged in engagement ring shopping. Throwing that
whole “two month’s salary” thing right out the
window, I had decided (without the DeBeer’s corporations
input, thankyouverymuch) that a $1500 to $2000 ring would adequately
demonstrate my love for her. We looked at Costco. We looked at
over-priced jewelry stores downtown that typically cater to tourists
with more money than I. Some rings were cheap, some we wanted
to buy, but unfortunately, none of the ones we wanted to buy were
One day, Oksana was going through her old jewelry and pulled
out a gaudy ring that could almost fit on my thumb. It had a gigantic,
eight-pronged CLAW holding a diamond that was large enough and
clear enough that we decided it just had to be fake. Long story
short: It had been a gift her dad had given her mom way back in
communist Russia and a $20 appraisal revealed that we really shouldn’t
carelessly misplace it.
The choice was obvious: The ring had to go and the diamond had
to stay. We laser-inscribed a single facet of the stone with her
family name; created a custom, Oksana-original band; and promptly
called USAA, my auto insurance company. They informed me that:
1) Yes, they’d insure the ring, 2) but it would be a “rider
policy” hence we would first need to pay for renter’s
insurance, and 3) we could save a lot of money by switching Oksana’s
car insurance -- but that’s beside the point.
For about $300 a year, we received a $25,000 renter’s insurance
policy that had too many conditional to follow. War? No, not covered.
Aerial and space debris? Yes, covered. Destruction brought about
by aerial objects, such as missiles, used in war? No. The list
of what was and wasn’t covered in our policy was too long
to read without more caffeine, so I just ignored it and moved
on to the ring policy – which is all we were really after.
(Heck, the ring policy was easy to decipher by comparison. Basically
you could do anything but irradiate it or intentionally throw
Then one terrible day in June, when the fire took out storage
unit J238, I immediately thought about that mile-long list of
qualifiers in our coverage. Fire? Maybe it won’t cover the
loss if there were no sprinklers or something. I could imagine
the telephone conversation: “Your property was in a mini-storage
unit? Oh, gee, we’re sorry – your renter’s policy
only covers items in the APARTMENT you rent. Don’t forget
your next payment is due at the end of the month!”
After sorting through the (non) remains of my unit (which had
been bulldozed to make a path into the building’s rubble,
by the way) I went home to read that policy. In the middle of
all those qualifiers, damage by fire was included. Low and behold,
it was practically the only one that didn’t have any conditions
attached to it! (Water damage? Covered. Provision #642: Unless
it was due to rain, or a flood, or a broke water pipe, or…)
I’m no insurance agent, but darned if it didn’t also
look like our property would be covered anywhere in the world.
Which was lucky because, until the day before, that’s where
the mini-storage was located.
Too good to be true? Probably. Time to call USAA.
I dialed them up and gave my claim information to a telephone
peon. Of course, they couldn’t answer my questions because
they couldn’t bring up my policy – that wasn’t
their job, anyway. I would just have to wait until my claims adjuster
It wasn’t too long before she did, though. Her name was
Jana and she told me she was probably going to have to come up
to Juneau to survey the site before the company could proceed.
Apparently they had insured at least four people that had belongings
in that building. I assured her that there wasn’t much to
salvage for anyone, but for some unfathomable, internal reasons
she was going to have to do a site inspection. Too bad they were
going to bulldoze the place before she could get here, because
she had to follow up on claims in Anchorage first. In the meantime,
she’d mail me a packet that would take me step-by-step through
the painstaking process of detailing every lost item.
By the time that packet had arrived in the mail, I’d already
drafted a considerable list. The hardest thing to categorize was
the collection of 4000 or so comic books I had in there. I hadn’t
looked at them since high school, but they were all protectively
bagged and boarded as an investment towards the future. How would
USAA let me list their value? Could I get away with a blanket
statement of, say $2 or $3 per comic? Or would have I have to
list every, single issue? Crikey.
Other items were easier to deal with. For instance, I had hundreds
of audio CD jewel boxes sitting in mini-storage because I had
the discs in a jukebox-like changer at home. My collection of
400+ paperback books just happened to have been cataloged quite
well when I boxed them up in preparation of the move from my trailer
to an apartment. (I found the complete book list on an old CD-ROM
backup of my computer.)
Most of it, though, was a months-long, pain-in-the-ass game of
price research and memory spelunking. How many college textbooks
did I have in storage? What books, modules, and boxed sets constituted
my, potentially collectable, Dungeons and Dragons collection?
How much are old clothes worth? How many videotapes did I have
in those two, huge footlockers? How much software did I lose,
and how much were the two old (yet functional) computers worth?
And yes, Jana made me list every, single comic book issue. The
only way I could think to do that was go through all 992 pages
of The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide (23rd Edition),
page-by-page, column-by-column, entry-by-entry and record every
issue of each series I could remember collecting during the five
years of my comic book phase (1987-1992). Two or three weeks of
intimate evenings spent with a highlighter marker left me with
a total of 3243 – 757 short of my estimated 4000 comics.
I just crossed my fingers and hoped that USAA would cut me some
slack and allow me to estimate the remainder at their lowest possible
value (according to the Overstreet Price Guide) of $2.25 each.
If there was anything that delayed the issuance of a check, it
was all that work.
Compared to racking my brain for every item in all of the dozens
of boxes in that storage unit (and all the emotional agony that
goes along with cataloging a loss like this), meeting with my
claims adjuster was a pleasure. Jana stopped by the university
one day and I took about a half an hour off from work to meet
with her. I gave her the photos and videotape I had shot of the
rubble that used to be my storage unit and handed over a long
list of the personal items I would never see again.
Surprisingly, in such a short frame of time, she took all my
items, the estimated values I had attributed to each, and condensed
it into a spreadsheet outlining their respective depreciation
values. Of course, that early after the accident, I hadn’t
yet dredged from my memory every item lost in the fire, and for
many of the ones I did know were lost, couldn’t find an
accurate estimate for them on the Internet. How do you assign
a value to an empty CD jewel case? How much is a 5-year-old computer
worth for which you paid more than $3000? (Answer, not a whole
helluva lot! Would you believe about $250?) But Jana didn’t
let that stand in the way of doing her job. To underscore how
pleasurable it was working with USAA: Jana asked me to estimate
how many cardboard boxes were in the unit – and then added
about $4 to my reimbursement for each one lost! Although I hadn’t
yet included the “big ticket items” like my books,
collectibles, or comics in the claim, Jana assured me that they
could already cut me a check for over $12,000. Two weeks after
such a disaster, that was a big weight off my chest.
Eventually, after submitting a claim that included a comic book
collection estimated at over $15,000, books over $4000, and audio
CDs over $3000, I found myself with a total north of $40,000.
After depreciation, I came out just barely above the maximum I
was allowed to collect – twenty-five thousand dollars. (They
took a nice, round 20% off my comic book collection because they
couldn’t believe that every single comic was in mint condition.
That was understandable and I wasn’t going to argue because
it I couldn’t get more than the $25,000 limit, anyway.)
Jana managed to get my check mailed to me just a few days after
my wedding and a just a day or two before Oksana and I left on
our honeymoon. Twenty. Five. Thousand. Dollars. Two-Five-Zero-Zero-Zero-dot-Zero-Zero
– USAA was even kind enough to take the $100 deductible
out of the $40,000 estimate! At the time I received that check,
I still wasn’t sure that it was worth the loss. Some personal
history was lost in that fire. To this day, what bothers me the
most is the loss of all my schoolwork collected since the 6th
grade. That and a box of souvenirs from 5 trips through 7 Latin
American countries. Things I will never be able to replace.
But it could have been much worse. Earlier in the year, I had
taken out the box that contained all my home video tapes. And
I never did put any of my dozen or so photo albums (and negatives)
into storage. In the year since the accident happened, I have
only once or twice found myself in need of some material item
that exists now as ashes. I guess that’s why all that stuff
was in storage in the first place – because I didn’t
really need it.
Noah, a good friend of mine, tried to cheer me up with some advice:
“It’s the best garage sale you’ll ever have.”
At the time I was still too depressed to see the wisdom in it,
but now that’s exactly the way I look at the situation.
Would you throw out half your material possessions for 25 grand?
No? Well, what if it’s just the stuff in your attic?
Anyway, barely two months after the check arrived I spent the
last of it. No, there wasn’t a Brewster’s Millions
motive or anything! Just a short list of things that I knew in
my mind had to be put behind me.
About $16,000 went away, just like that, to student loans and
credit card bills. Paying them off made me 100% debt free and,
oh, about 80% happy. Most of the rest covered every last dime
not already paid pertaining to our wedding and honeymoon. And
the last couple thousand dollars bought me something I’ve
wanted for a very long time: A tiny Sony Picturebook. In fact,
if you’re reading this, it’s likely due to that purchase
alone. Having a laptop that I can bring with me anywhere is a
huge factor in letting me explore my creativity through writing…
But the best thing the money bought me was the ability to marry
Oksana (an accountant, no less) without my financial baggage.
After racking up such a debt, I told myself that I would never
marry someone until I was free from it, but I knew after a year
with Oksana that I couldn’t wait that long and risk letting
her get away. When the check cleared, there was that old hesitation:
“I could pay off all my debts this month, but maybe I should
just pay off half this month and the remainder next month. I mean,
the money will still be there, right…?” Ha! That’s
what got me in trouble with the credit cards in the first place!
No… paying everything off – every last penny of debt
– was the right decision. Now we have no car payments to
make, no mortgage, and credit card debts always get paid off by
the end of each month (and earn us Alaska Airlines miles, to boot!)
Now that Oksana is raking in the dough at her full-time job at
the Mendenhall Auto Center, we’re socking away (what seems
to me) a ton of money. It’s amazing how much far your paycheck
can go when $400 per month isn’t paying interest!
I would like to end this little story on such a happy note, but
I don’t think it would do justice to this small chapter
in my life. Not once, not even when receiving the largest check
I’ve ever seen, did I consider this to be a “good
thing.” No, I wouldn’t wish an accident like this
Did I say accident? Oops. Did I forget to mention that I went
through this because someone intentionally burned my, and hundreds
of others’, property to the ground?
In the weeks and months that followed the fire, Juneau police
were called in to investigate. If Knightwatch Security had checked
the building earlier that morning at 4am, why had all the fire
doors been opened allowing the fire to spread so quickly? The
Juneau Police Department offered a reward to anyone that had information
about the fire and it wasn’t long before someone called
into to tell them about a couple young adults that might have
broken into some storage units that same night.
This rumor made its rounds around town and it wasn’t long
before the Police called and asked me to come down to the station.
The first thing officer Sell told me was that I shouldn’t
get my hopes up. “Thieves are like raccoons; they usually
only take whatever is bright and shiny.” She wasn’t
kidding. These geniuses that broke into the storage complex made
off with a set of screwdrivers, someone’s button collection,
a butane lighter refill kit, and other assorted knick-knacks.
It was depressing not to find any of my own property among that
recovered, but I hoped that someone else, at least, would be able
to identify the stuff as their own (and consequently be able to
Apparently someone did, because more of the story was later reported
in the newspaper. Yes, they did find and arrest two people –
it wasn’t hard to find these two criminal masterminds, either.
You know where they were? In the Juneau Correctional Facility
awaiting their trial for stealing cash and checks from the Gastineau
Human Society earlier that weekend.
In talking with the police, I found out that they were to be
charged with arson in the first degree – the best that could
be hoped for (from my perspective, at least.) I remember remarking,
“We’ll sure, since they were responsible for the destruction
of millions of dollars worth of property!” Officer Sell
then informed me that monetary value had nothing to do with it.
Only because the firefighters’ lives were put in danger
(when the roof collapsed, and when propane tanks started going
up, and when approximately 3000 rounds of ammunition cooked off)
was the charge automatically raised to Arson in the First Degree.
I stopped following the whole situation in the Juneau Empire
when I heard that one of the hooligans plead completely out of
the charges and the other’s sentence was reduced when he
agreed to plead guilty to the earlier “crime spree.”
Things like that make me lose faith in the human race as a whole,
and there’s no sense dwelling on them.
You know really gets me, though? What drives me nuts about the
whole situation? If those two bozos had simply cut the locks,
stole their $100 dollars worth of crap merchandise and left well
enough alone, the police would probably have told the owners that
there wasn’t anything they could do. But, no. They opened
the fire doors and burned the place down to "cover fingerprints
they may have left at the scene.” After the fire, of course
the police would be under a lot of public pressure to find them
– they caused millions of dollars worth of damage, destroyed
people’s lives! Offer a big enough reward and their own
mothers would probably turn them in!
You know we should do? I think we should wait for these punks
to grow up, start a family, take a lot of photos and build up
their households… then show up one day and present a court
order to burn it all to the ground!
Sounds harsh? Well, I was one of the lucky ones. A good friend
of mine had packed everything he owned into that storage building
in anticipation of moving to Seattle. After the fire, he was left
with a single change of clothes (gym clothes) and his computer.
He lost everything else. Can you imagine? Your clothes, your furniture,
your software. Years’ worth of collected “demo reel”
material mere weeks before you begin looking for your dream job?
And you know what? He didn’t have insurance.
If there’s a moral to this story, I guess that’s
it. If you don’t have homeowner’s or renter’s
insurance, you should call an insurance agent right now and get
it! It’ll cost you maybe a half-hour on the phone and, if
you’re like us, about $25 a month. Paying for insurance
never seems like it’s worth it… until you need it.