What would you do if you came home one day, only to find your home gone?
For state Rep. Rick Kriseman, his wife, Kerry, and their two children, the loss of their St. Petersburg home to an electrical fire in June started them on an odyssey that's nowhere near over.
They lost their two beloved dogs, most of their possessions, and their comfortable family routine as they waded into a maze of bureaucracy and numbing details. But they consider themselves among the luckiest of the thousands who face major home fires every year.
"We had the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with this,'' Kerry said. "Most people probably just give up. They don't fight to get what they deserve. That's what's sad.''
The fire started at around 12:30 a.m. on June 4, a couple of hours after the petsitter had stopped by to care for the dogs. The Krisemans, in Williamsburg, Va., with their children Samuel, 5, and Jordan, 11, were sound asleep in their hotel when the phone rang at 3 a.m.
It took them 14 hours to drive from the family vacation to the family disaster. The story unfolded as they checked the St. Petersburg Times' Breaking News blog, and as photos from the fire scene streamed onto their cell phone from Lt. Rick Feinberg of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. Their insurance agent called to say the house was a total loss.
Investigators would discover that the fire started in an outside electrical outlet and flew up through the walls to the attic, sending flames high into the sky. Why the fire started is not clear; it began in a ground fault circuit interrupter outlet that was hardly ever used. The only thing Rick ever noticed amiss about it was that the screw heads on the cover were a little rusty.
The house was built in the 1950s and expanded in 2000. The fire started in the newer part, which contained the master bedroom.
"The way the house burned — if we'd been there, we don't know if we would have been able to get to the kids and get them out of there,'' Rick said, glancing at Kerry and shaking his head as he considered how much worse it could have been.
Once back in St. Petersburg, they left the kids with Kerry's mother and faced the charred remains of the pretty home they'd lived in since 1994. They had lots of company.
"As soon as we got there, multiple restoration companies were on the scene, all wanting us to hire them,'' Rick said. "A buddy of mine was there and said it was like sharks feeding. The TV stations wanted to follow him around the house.''
The worst was learning that Henry, their 10-year-old black Labrador retriever, and yellow Lab Maggie, 4, were badly injured. Despite valiant veterinary efforts, both dogs died.
Family and friends from the Junior League, Shorecrest Cares Committee, Temple Beth-El and others rallied to their aid, as did state legislators of both parties, some of whom had been through Hurricane Andrew.
"We've never been in a position to need anything,'' said Kerry, 40, a deeply involved volunteer with many of the groups that helped. "But your pride goes out the window when something like this happens. You accept help.''
Much of the financial aid, which Rick, 46, will have to declare on his legislative gifts disclosure at the end of the year, went to pay the veterinary bills, which insurance does not cover. The freezer filled with meals from well-wishers, and gift cards helped with sudden expenses, like the $300 tab at Target for household supplies families take years to accumulate.
Their insurance policy pays for rent at a house in St. Petersburg, where the family is temporarily living with their new Labrador, Peppermint, who, like Henry and Maggie, is a rescue dog. But although their old home is gone, they still pay the mortgage, taxes, insurance and some utilities.
"For most middle-class people, and that's us, it's a challenge,'' Rick said.
Now they're always looking for ways to give back the help they received, including volunteering to speak publicly about fire safety and prevention.
After she saw a house fire in Safety Harbor on the news, Kerry drove up with a donation.
"It was rough,'' she said. "It smelled just like our house.''
The Krisemans' insurance policy includes replacement coverage that will pay most of the cost of the new home they are building on their now-cleared lot. But only after a lot of work.
"If it's a total loss, the insurance company pays on the dwelling,'' Rick explained. "But on the contents, you have to justify everything.''
That meant finding receipts (Kerry's a meticulous recordkeeper, and the file cabinets survived the blaze). The insurance company hires contents experts to work on the inventory, "but their figures were badly off,'' Kerry said. For example, their wedding photo album was valued at just $20.
"When you've gone through losing your home, the last thing you want is to have to remember every single thing you had,'' said Rick, who's thinking about legislation to help others in his situation. "When you buy your coverage, the contents should be determined then.''
He urges homeowners to review their policies closely to ensure they have the right kinds of coverage and enough of it.
"The budget (to rebuild the home) is going to be tight,'' Rick said. "Overall, we'll have a 2,700- square-foot house (the old one was 2,600). And it's going to be green,'' he said, with environmentally conscious, energy-saving designs and materials. "But it will cost more than the coverage we had.''
The couple said goodbye to the old place in dramatic style.
"We were there to video the demolition,'' said Rick, who got to operate the demolition claw on its first strike into the home's remains. "I wanted to see it come down. I felt that we can't move on until it's down.''
The couple talked to contractors about green building designs.
"We started thinking this was a great opportunity,'' said Rick, the ranking Democrat on the state House Committee on Energy. "But we had to consider, can we afford to do it? Does it make sense?''
They got their answer from a team of local experts, including architect Tim Roney, general contractor Deslandes Contracting and Darren Brinkley of REAL Building, the consultant who's helping the project attain certification by the U.S. Green Building Coalition.
Ground should be broken in the next couple of weeks, and the Krisemans hope to see it completed in about six months.
The new house will be more hurricane resistant and, yes, they're looking at sprinkler systems. It will look completely different from the old house.
"We wanted to move forward,'' Rick said.
But don't try telling Kerry that the silver lining is a new house.
"Some people have said, 'Oh, now you get to build your dream home,' " she said.
"But we didn't pick this. We loved our house.''
Charlotte Sutton can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8425.