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A Family Copes with a Fire

A tragic fire set the stage for this This Old House renovation project in Billerica

"Your house is on fire," John Silva said.

Dick Silva, coated with sawdust as he worked a remodeling job in Lexington, Massachusetts, felt his stomach knot. It was 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday, March 9, 1999, and his brother's voice on the cell phone lacked any trace of its usual joviality. "John's a big kidder, but I knew he wouldn't kid about something like that," Dick recalls.

So Dick—a skilled carpenter who, along with his brothers John and Tom and his nephew Charlie, has helped on a half-dozen This Old House projects—sprinted to his truck. After 20 tense minutes he reached his home in Billerica, 20 miles north of Boston. "There were firemen all over the place," he says, shaking his head. "Flames were shooting out of the windows."

Seven fire trucks from three towns spent the next five hours pouring water on the 70-year-old four-bedroom Cape. As Dick watched helplessly, friends and family, including Tom and John, cried, hugged, and shivered in the late-winter chill. It wasn't until 4:30 p.m. that the last embers were snuffed out.

Fortunately, no one was injured, aside from Penny, the Silvas' 7-year-old shar-pei. Before she escaped via the dog door, the fire singed her fur and filled her lungs with smoke. But the house where Dick and his wife, Sandra, had lived for 32 years and raised their three daughters was a total loss, devastated from cellar to attic.

"That night, we literally had just the clothes on our backs," says Sandra. "We got into the car in a daze. We didn't even know where we were going. We found a motel that would take us and the dog. It felt unreal not to be in our own house."

<p>Local firefighters struggled for hours to bring the blaze under control.</p>

Local firefighters struggled for hours to bring the blaze under control.

Photo by Joe Yutkins

In the following morning's light, the blackened structure resembled a missile target. Half of the back roof was gone; all the windows were smashed; and the vinyl siding hung in melted strips from the walls. Inside, part of the second floor had collapsed onto the first. Scattered amid the wreckage were the remains of a ceramic carousel horse and some miniature cars fused into briquette-shaped lumps, poignant reminders of a house once stuffed with collections of antique train sets, clocks, toys, and tools.

That same day, sifting through the damp debris in the basement, Billerica Fire Department investigator Al Melaragni concluded that the fire began "in the vicinity of the heating system," but he couldn't pin down the precise cause. He figured the blaze probably burned for more than an hour before being noticed. TOH director Russ Morash says, "The problem is that everyone in this neighborhood works, so there was nobody to hear the smoke detectors or notice anything amiss." Ultimately, a passing motorist, concerned about the cloud of smoke pouring from the chimney, called the fire department.

Luckily, the home and its contents were insured at replacement value. Dick and Sandra hired a public adjuster to tally their losses and represent their interests to the insurance company; they expect to receive full compensation. "It's an exhausting process, but necessary," says Dick. In the cellar workshop alone, "I figure I had $36,000 in tools." See Insuring Against the Worst

<p>Penny, the family shar-pei and the only one at home when the fire started, exited through a dog door. For days afterward, says Dick, "when she coughed, it smelled like smoke."</p>

Penny, the family shar-pei and the only one at home when the fire started, exited through a dog door. For days afterward, says Dick, "when she coughed, it smelled like smoke."

Photo by Joe Yutkins

Dick and Sandra decided they would rebuild on the same two-acre parcel. "All of our friends are here. Our life is here," said Sandra, picking through a box of charred and curled photos of her girls' prom dates and Halloween parties. "Whenever it snows, and Dick says he's going out to plow the driveway, I know he'll be gone for three hours, because he plows every driveway on the street. We can't imagine being somewhere else." As if to underscore the Silvas' connection to the area, a constant stream of friends and neighbors helped them in the days after the fire, providing clothes, furnishings, and food. And within a week, a 70-foot-long double-wide trailer appeared on their driveway. The Silvas rented it so they can stay on the property while their new residence is being built.

For five weeks, the house stood forlorn, cordoned off with yellow tape, as fire and insurance investigators picked through the rubble. Sandra followed them, occasionally uncovering buried mementos: a cherished photograph of her mother, miraculously unharmed within its melted plastic frame, and one intact survivor from a collection of figurines—a tiny ceramic firefighter.

Roughly a month after the fire, a bucket loader toppled the burned-out hulk, pushing and crushing it into four 100-cubic-yard Dumpsters. Dick watched, his face an impassive mask. "You try to be light about it, but it gets to you," he said. Known as the quietest of the Silva brothers, he struggled to express his feelings as he began, at age 56, a new chapter in his life.

"This is hard," he said, wiping his eyes as the loader rumbled and crunched. "But once it's completely gone and we can start building, I'll feel a lot better."

WANT TO REVISIT THIS PROJECT? See Stop a Fire Before It Starts for leassons learned, or An Inside Job to learn how the TOH team came together to finish this project.