What can be salvaged from a contaminated apartment
November 1, 2010 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Contaminated apartment/building due to fire - can my friend expect to get anything out eventually?

Asking for a friend - due to this San Francisco fire in the building next door -she has not been able to return to her apartment which was rendered inhabitable due to water damage. Latest information is that her building is contaminated, nobody is allowed in or out except city health department with protective gear. There was talk from the city of setting up a clean room, but we don't know what this means, or what stuff may be salvageable.

This differs from this question in the regard that they haven't been allowed to enter since the fire.

Has anyone experience of this and if they can expect to get anything out? We realize that beds and clothes are probably shot, but what about hardware, tools, computers, backup drives (even if water damaged, avoided the water). How long can this process take?

Any pointers to non-obvious people that can help would be welcome (usual parties, Red Cross, apartment managers, etc. are already involved to their maximum ability).
posted by Disco Moo to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I was in this situation. I was given a two hour period to take out all that I could carry. I believe the city made the determination. I was able to salvage books, plates and the like.

It took a couple of weeks for the authorities to determine that the building was safe enough to enter.

A lot of things that I did not think would smell of smoke still smell two years later.

I can answer other questions by memail if you have them.
posted by vincele at 1:37 PM on November 1, 2010

Best answer: I have some relatives who had a house fire last January. Very few of their belongings were ruined by water. Almost all of them, something like 97%, were ruined by smoke damage.

The smell is bad. It's not a friendly smoke smell, like a campfire. It smells like burnt things that shouldn't have been. It's acrid and chemical-y and tenacious as hell.

Their insurance was awesome. The insurance team went through and just wrote off 70% of their stuff right off the bat. Furniture, rugs, paper things like books, this stuff all got pitched because it couldn't be saved.

The remaining 30% was all sent to a company that specializes in cleaning smoke damage. They have a bunch of different processes they use, and are one of the most respected companies operating in this field.

About half the stuff the insurance company sent to be cleaned turned out not to be cleanable. 15% of my relatives' belongings came back from the cleaning company.

They found that only about 2% of the stuff which was professionally cleaned, actually was completely unscathed. (Glassware, mostly - glassware that happened to be tucked far enough into the cabinets not to get scorched or stained with the slurry of firefighting chemicals.) The rest of it did still have a noticeable, if faint odor.

Not to be a bummer, but your friends should be prepared to have basically lost everything. I'm truly sorry. No one should have to go through that.
posted by ErikaB at 2:02 PM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

The smell is almost impossible to get rid of on lots of things. If they let your friend in then get her to think twice before rescuing anything that isn't sentimental, better to let the insurance decide on that - rescuing things that will stink for a year is a false economy sometimes. Usually they let you in for a specified time to grab stuff, until then look up local charities that give emergency relief, a lot of the time they'll supply bedding/clothes/food in the short term. If your friend is a veteran or has children or falls into another specific category look at those charities first.
posted by shinybaum at 2:16 PM on November 1, 2010

I too had insurance, which replaced everything for me too. Still, there were things I wanted to salvage, like rare books and notes, which I needed for work right away. They did not retain smoke smell.

Even after professional cleaning it is hard to get smoke smell out of leather.
posted by vincele at 2:18 PM on November 1, 2010

I've some personal experience with this. I lived on the top floor of an apartment complex which was burned open during winter. I didn't have a lot of direct fire damage, so almost everything survived to be identifiable, but between the smoke, water, and winter weather, I had a total write off as almost everything was too damaged to be usable. Fortunately, I had renter's insurance, which took care of my needs like the insurance for ErikaB's relatives did.

People who lived below me probably had a little smoke damage initially, but thanks to the walls being opened to the elements, ended up with water damage too. They probably had more recoverables, but I'm not sure to what extent. Those who had renter's insurance probably got help paying for moving recoverable items.

As for the OP's friend's situation, first thing to consider is how far the water damage spread, and how much smoke got into the apartment. There's only so much that can be done depending on both. And it's really hard to tell unless they can get in. The longer the delay, the more decay and damage sets in.

Smoke damaged electronics have a much shorter lifespan, and generally should be trashed. Sealed electronics might be OK - I salvaged an expensive radio this way - but I generally don't recommend it.

Water damaged electronics, like a hard drive, may need to be sent to a recovery expert. Generally, recovery of contents is expensive or time consuming.

As for other things like hardware and tools - maybe, but cleaning is always a chore. I did recover CDs, after trashing the cases and liner notes. Silverware, glassware, and plates might be savable.

The Red Cross has instructions (or had back in the day) for cleaning and recovering smoke damaged clothing. They work in the short term, but most cloth items retain enough smoke and soot that they soon smell again. I learned that sadly after trying to wash and reuse a canvas bag. Some of my former neighbors didn't have insurance, and were trying to save all their kid's clothes.
posted by ZeusHumms at 2:19 PM on November 1, 2010

This thread on recovering books from a fire might help too.
posted by ZeusHumms at 2:51 PM on November 1, 2010

My parents-in-law had a very serious house fire a few years back. The insurance company wrote off everything - said nothing was salvageable. In reality, they were able to restore all the furniture, pictures, books, and important things. Even photos. It all took a lot of work to clean and mend things, though, and the books still smell of smoke. The soft furnishings (curtains, bedclothes, etc) were not salvageable. The CDs and records had melted.

Generally speaking plastic and fabric was doomed; metal, china, even most wood was okay. Paper survived if it was protected inside something else (even in photo albums, for example).
posted by lollusc at 3:18 PM on November 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers
posted by Disco Moo at 11:58 AM on November 2, 2010

Response by poster: Just to follow up on this. Last weekend she got most of her stuff back, only one of the beds and some clothes and rugs were ruined. In her case a moving company was hired to pack all of the apartment contents and move them to her new location. They made the judgement of what was salvageable and what was not. So good result thankfully.
posted by Disco Moo at 8:57 PM on November 17, 2010

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