Below is the story of the tragedy here at Leechburg Lights. Many people wanted to know what has happened. To be honest, this is my life’s biggest trial. It has been ugly since day-1. It starts back on Super Bowl Sunday and goes down-hill from there. If you care to read the detailed events of the past 6 weeks, just scroll down. It is one of the worst stories I’ve ever written.
If you are interested in donating, please know the funds are going directly to the home repairs. Significant progress has been made but we are still behind by around $2400. WE have about 1 more weeks’ worth of funds for the major repairs… the rest can be completed between me and my tenants, and maybe a few volunteers from the local community (clean up rooms and paint after the fire). Currently the goal is set to $5000 but we are looking for $7400 to make the final budget.
The rest of the story…
February 7, Super Bowl Sunday, is a day that will live in infamy for us here at Leechburg Lights. While most people were getting ready for Church or cooking breakfast, an electrical nightmare occurred in the downstairs apartment at 9:20 am. Hearing a POP and seeing smoke, my tenant saw the cable line catch on fire. After putting it out, Bill proceeded to check on his children in their room. It was true horror when he opened the bedroom door to find their dresser on fire with flames over 3 feet high, and a nearly smoke-filled room.
“I chased the kids out of the house (Kelly was at work) and then managed to get the fire out using Tupperware bowls of water, yes you read that correctly. I then checked both apartments to make sure there weren’t any more fires and that’s when the power started to fluctuate! I ran to the basement and turned off the main power. I then checked the house again and got my kids some warm clothing…” Bill Domiano, Leechburg Lights tenant
The weekend didn’t start out so “great” either. Earlier in the week, the upstairs toilet in my apartment overflowed. Inside the floor (their ceiling) the toiled drain pipe had broke. We didn’t realize it until later in the day when Kelly (Bill’s wife) asked me if my shower was leaking. She noticed the floor was wet in front of their closet which is located directly under the tub and toilet drain. Later that night I flushed the toilet and found it overflowing from the broken drain into their closet, covering all their cloths and belongings. I said, “well, looks like I’ll have to knock out the wall and remove the closet in the coming week.” I was scheduled to be off on Monday… the day AFTER Super Bowl Sunday…
Claims were filed by my tenant’s and myself. The sewage damage was by far worse than the fire damage. Bill managed to save the house with his fourth Tupperware bowl of water. The carpeting, some wood, and a dresser were the worse of the damage. But, the smoke now stained the walls in the girl’s bedroom as well as the adjoining pantries and kitchen. And, how did the fire start?
After making numerous phone calls, I finally got an electrician to answer the phone on Monday afternoon [the next day]. We spent 3 hours inspecting and testing the wiring to see what could have caused the problem. Using my multi-meter, I was checking line voltage on both legs of the main panels. I noticed that voltage was dropping from 110v down to 95 on one leg. I had a few things plugged into an outlet at the time. When I tested the other leg, the voltage jumped up to 125v. The electrician recommended calling the power company to test the incoming power lines.
I waited for 3 hours, until 7:30pm and went to get something to eat (had not eaten all day). When I returned, 12 minutes later, the West Penn Power Technician was sitting in front of the house in his truck with an angry smirk on his face. He said, “There is nothing wrong with the power from the incoming line. The problem is all of your God Damn Christmas lights.” Nothing could have angered me more! They were all unplugged as of January 5th, the final day of the 2015 show. He moved on, and I was left with more questions.
I won’t bore you with the insurance details. After filing the claims, I was visited by the Adjuster. There was no electricity and they could not do anything for me until I could safely restore power. The Adjuster also said that she would not return until power was restored and the damage from the broken sewer pipe could be “cleaned” up by a registered water cleanup company. I then spoke with her concerning my water pipes. The electric was now off, we had no heat. I was using 5 kerosene heaters to keep the pipes from freezing and prevent further damage. I asked if the insurance would cover a winterizing of the property, the Adjuster made the proper arrangements. The entire pipe system in the house, including the furnace boiler system was drained on Wednesday.
My contractor wanted to begin repairing the sewer and drain lines so he removed what needed to be removed for that repair. We were authorized 1 wall and the ceiling to be taken down, that was it. When I asked to have a small dumpster brought in, the Adjuster said, “No, you can take plaster and debris out using trash bags and haul it away in the back of a truck! We won’t pay for a dumpster.” In fact, the next 3 weeks I was going to be cornered by the insurance company and the Adjuster with what I could and couldn’t do. We spent the entire day Wednesday helping to remove all of my tenant’s belongings from their hallway so we could begin repairs on the room. Remember… no power, no water, not bathroom, no heat. The average temperature was now 20º F.
Thursday, after the fire, we had a master electrician come in. We spent the day troubleshooting the cause. We looked at all the wires in the tenant’s apartment and found that all of the water pipes were electrified. The boiler furnace, no longer in use, had pipes that were electrified as well. We checked the separate line upstairs as well and could not find any faults with the wiring in my apartment, and cleared my electric box to be turned back on. Yeaaa!!! Heat! But there was serious work that needs done on the entire electrical grid in the downstairs apartment. The old knob-and-tube wire could have been compromised and may not be safe. Great!!! Rewiring the downstairs… not covered by the insurance!
The contractor began ripping out the closet, wall, and ceiling. The mess was more than enough to keep everyone busy. We purchased a “Bag-ster”, a huge bag made of heavy tarp-like material with 2 giant straps, to place the debris from the demolition. Once it is full, you call in the Waste Management Company to lift and remove it. At the same time we decided to run new plumbing lines up from the basement, into my bathroom and kitchen using PEX and removing the CPVC that was installed outside the walls by the previous owner of the house.
Friday, still no water, but I had heat and power upstairs. Great! I can finally make coffee. I brewed a whole 12 cup pot. I noticed the coffee took a very long time to brew, fully 20 minutes. I showed the electrician and we took a multimeter and tested the voltage once again. WOW, the voltage dropped down from 110v to 70v. We went over to the sub panel in the kitchen and checked the second leg in the box. It registered at 155v! This was vastly different than the test conducted earlier on Monday. We were now sure the fire was caused by a voltage imbalance, overpowering any electrical gizmo that may be connected to an outlet that was over 120v.
To my relief, I was given a hotel room at the Holiday Inn in Kittanning, PA. It was located across the parking lot from where I work, making it convenient. I was able to finally wash cloths using their laundry mat. It was the first time I could wash cloths in over a week. Oh and I finally had the internet! I was able to stay there for 3 weeks.
One week later:
Monday, work resumed in the hallway, cutting out the floor to make the appropriate connection to the main sewer drain from the upstairs. We were not permitted to have the floor pulled up until a registered water drying specialist came in to say the room was clean and safe. Plumbing was being run now from the basement up through the new ceiling area. This was a very slow and costly process. The insurance company requested a ServiceMaster rep arrive. Without solid power, we could not have them come.
We also put a call into the power company. Go figure that I called and was on hold (at work) for around 1 hour and 25 minutes just to have an Allegheny Power Technician come to the house. At roughly 5:00pm, a technician arrived (different guy than last week) and determined the home had lost its incoming neutral line. This is also known as alternating current or a floating voltage problem. It was broken over the middle of the street. The contractor, electrician, and I all assisted the technician in removing the bad wire; and helped raise the new replacement line. YIPPIE!!!! Power and heat restored to the home! It is now about 99.9% likely the electrical fire was caused by this bad incoming line.
The rest of the week was haunted by the Adjuster telling my contractor what he could and could not do. We also were still waiting on ServiceMaster to arrive and begin “cleaning and drying” the water damage in the hallway as per the insurance companies specifications. During the week, I received a letter from my home owner’s insurer saying that I had elected to have a non-certified water-cleanup company do the repair on the room. If that was the case, the insurer was not going to pay anything on the water sewage claim. Again, we were afraid to continue any work due to my hands being tied by the insurer.
This entire week we had to play the waiting game for ServiceMaster to inspect the water damage and begin their treatment. I finally spoke with the man on Friday and had set an appointment for the following Monday. Work continued upstairs to have new lines installed into the kitchen and the bathroom. This was also costing money, to the tune of around $5000 of my savings. Great! Plumbing repairs and replacements were not covered in my home owner’s policy. Just Great!
During the week, the contractor opened up the floor a bit more to find that the sewer drain was backed up all the way to the floor elbow. The drain had separated and raw sewerage was sitting in the dirt under the floor. We began receiving bids to have a new main sewer stack installed into the house. This meant abandoning all the old terracotta pipes which may have been crushed. My home has had horrible drains since the day I purchased it. They have been snaked more than 5 times in 10 years.
Another project that began was the removal of all metal pipes in the basement, along with the 1919 gas boiler furnace. Removing the pipes in the entire basement made it much easier to trace all the wiring going to the downstairs electric panel. It also removed any possibility of having electrified pipes.
We found a local contractor, Rob Mattu, to dig the main sewer line and replace it up to the curb. The work began that Saturday. The estimate started around $1500- $2000 to start but quickly jumped to $3000. Once the main line was reached at the curb and the old pipe removed, they found the drain was clogged completely to the center of the road.
The Borough of Leechburg is currently going through a sewer separation project where most of the sewer lines are being dug up and replaced. Most home owners will have new lines connected to their existing lines this coming June. Luckily the engineering company was in town and sent a man up to scope the drain from inside the city sewer main. The blockage was found 7 feet from the city’s main run, in the middle of the street. I also learned it is the home owner’s responsibility to repair any broken lines up to the main connection in the road. The bid now jumped up an additional $2000 to uncover the broken pipe and repair it. Great! More money!
Two Weeks after:
The street was broken into and the blocked section was found roughly 7 feet from the center of the street. New gasketed schedule 40 PVC was installed up to the point of the break. A few tri-axels of gravel and $5000 later, I had a working sewer.
Focus on the home shifted to plumbing matters. The contractor’s plumber finished all the new copper connections to my bathroom and kitchen. The goal now was to get the water flowing again, and get me back home with a shower and washing machine. I worked with my contractor in the basement to reconnect the new 1 inch PEX water main to the existing half-inch water meter. The process was stalled a day due to a crew member’s vehicle breaking down on the way with the needed parts.
Meanwhile, the ServiceMaster representative finally arrived to scope the now DRY water damage. He said he could offer no more drying and suggested the carpet and floor be taken up and removed. I reported the findings back to the Adjuster, and she scheduled a return visit for the coming Friday. We continued the demo in the hallway floor to begin installing the new 4 inch drain from the back of the house and connecting it to the new main stack which was installed Monday afternoon.
During the week I had the electrician add new outlets to my kitchen. I also had to begin demoing the wall there as well. Since the old drains are being abandoned, my kitchen must be rearranged to connect into the new drains on the other side of the room. What a mess! The washing machine needed re-located since the old drain could not connect into the new main stack. This required the demolition of a closet in my upstairs hallway.
After filling the small “bag-ster” with the remaining rubble, we called the Waste Management Company to pickup the debris. I was then told the service was not available at my location. What!!!!! It would have cost double to have the rubbish taken by a different vendor. So, I called and ordered a 10 yard dumpster for delivery that day. I had to take, by hand and shovel, all the debris from the bag-ster and place it into the dumpster. This process took 2 days and a lot of work! It was a good thing I ordered it, we filled the dumpster in 2 weeks… level to the top.
After looking at the funds in my bank account, I had to make a choice. Plumbing the whole house was beginning eat away at my savings, not to mention the cost of labor to do the work. I had to tell the electrician to finish up the work he had done since I could not afford to continue to employ him. Money was now beginning to run out. I had spent over $8,000 of my savings since the fire, and there was no end in sight. It was a Wednesday night when I realized there was no way I could pay for all the work that the house needs. I opened up for the first time on Facebook to tell the world my nightmare.
An amazing thing happened that night. Within 15 minutes of my post, a Go Fund Me page was created by a fellow lighting enthusiast. Andy Harrison (thank you Andy!) started at a goal of $1000 that quickly turned into over $4500 in around 1 week. The following Friday I received 2 checks from the Adjuster for the damage caused by the fire and sewage leak. It was not near enough to cover the total repair bill; however, combined with the donations made by the amazing people in this lighting hobby, many of my worries were covered. Well, at least for a few weeks.
I began applying for loans from a number of banks. At first it looked grim. A complete home appraisal was required in order to receive an equity line of credit. The whole process was going to take around 3 weeks before I could have cash on hand to make payment for the contractor supply and labor cost.
While progress was made, the results showed slowly. I completely gutted the hallway. The ceiling had been lowered in the late 1940’s and we found very little support from the added ceiling. The second set of ceiling joists were removed as well as the entire floor joist system. New sewage lines were installed. We had to jack up the main beam on the back side of the house. It managed to lift around 3 / 8’s of an inch before the beam began to crack. We supported the beam and began installing the floor joist system. The hallway floor was now level. After some insulation and new decking, we were able to walk level with the house again. The ceiling needed new sister joists to support the existing broken joists.
More demo in the hall revealed all the old knob-and-tube wire which gave power to the back half of the downstairs as well as in my apartment. We found a wall that was not supported by any studs and had been infested with termites. This was going to cost more time and money *sigh. We removed and replaced the lines with 12/2 romex. This was a long job which took me more than 10 hours to complete.
We added another person to the demo crew and spent 4 days demolishing and gutting the bathroom. The broom needed connected to the new water and draining pipes. All the old pipes were knocked out and removed.
Meanwhile, the other guys were working up a storm in the hallway. Most of the room has been drywalled as well as fixtures added so we didn’t need the work lights any longer. It was nice to finally see a light switch turn on and off a light bulb.
This week was also a bit rough. I was on my way to work on Thursday when the police stopped at the house to say they had a complaint about building materials in the yard. The officer instructed my contractor’s employees they had to clean the yard, and we were not allowed to burn any longer. This was during the middle of the bathroom demo and held us up about 4 hours. Seems some neighbor didn’t like the fact I had boards with nails in them. The dumpster was full and slated to be picked up that day.
After a few calls and conversations, we were told to “neaten up the place”. The concern was if a child wandered into my yard, they may step on a board with a nail, or otherwise hurt themselves. I understood what was being asked and we have spent time every day making the yard as neat as possible during this phase. There is still stuff in the yard, but we were told to cover up the construction debris with a tarp. I also am using the bag-ster in the back of the pickup to take debris into the local dump.
Friday was also the day of bad news. The appraiser’s review of the property came back, it was not good. The house was not in livable condition. They could not put any value on the house at this time. My heart sank, as well as my hopes to have the money to continue working on the house. The bank refused a home equity line of credit. Funny, I owned my home for 11 years and faithfully paid into my mortgage. But yet, it is not worth anything at this time? I was offered an unsecured loan for $6000 at a ridiculously high interest rate. Yay! *gee thanks!
Over the weekend, my contractor and I crunched the numbers. There is no way to finish all the work needed and pay for all the supplies the job requires. We began cutting things out of the bill like drywall for my apartment, no new windows added, going with cheaper fixtures, and re-using old lighting. With all the adjustments, we are still falling short.
This week the hallway and closet are nearly finished with drywall, it will look amazing! We have turned our attention to the bathroom where we need to get into the crawlspace and begin running the new PEX water lines for the tenant’s washer and dryer, sink, toilet, and shower.
Where we are at today:
I signed off on the loan yesterday, it keeps the work going. This is the last of the money I am able to come up with. After this, there is no more. We are hoping to have all the plumbing done by Friday. I will be out of funds by the middle of week 7 and work will stop there. We estimate the final weeks cost to be around $2400… give or take a few hundred. In total, I have spent $22,000 in the past 6 weeks.
I diverted all my cash resources to repair my tenant’s part of the house and will just deal with my apartment when I can. I hope to be able to raise enough to cover the final costs. Their kitchen still needs plumbing installed and the cabinet rebuilt. The true challenge will be cleaning and painting their entire apartment. We haven’t gotten the house empty enough to be able to clean the downstairs yet. That is why the plumbing is more important to finish than ever.
I would like to thank everyone who has shared and donated to keep this going. On Sunday, my co-workers and team members presented a large donation which means the world to me and helps pay for the paint I’ll need to finish up the rooms in the tenant’s apartment. I fear I’m at the end of the line and we out of options. Your continued prayers and support means the world to me. Thank you for all you have given