January 24, 2013

Benton couple set eyes on the future after losing home to fire

Amid single-digit temperatures, homeowners pick through what's left after their mobile home was destroyed Wednesday night

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Newly homeless on a frigid morning, a Benton couple is trying to pick up the pieces after an electrical fire gutted their mobile home.

click image to enlarge

Kim Ricciardelli, left, and Bryan Cocchio search for salvageable photos inside the kitchen of their mobile home on Thursday. Fire destroyed the uninsured home Wednesday evening. Cocchio believes the fire may have started near some heat tape.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Eric Lynes, Red Cross response manager for Maine, recommends taking the following steps to be prepared for a disaster such as a fire.

* Talk with your family about an evacuation plan that includes where to meet outside

* Get renters' insurance.

* Store copies of your driver's license, birth certificate and other important documents in a fireproof box.

* Keep a fire extinguisher in the house.

* Make sure you know who to call at your insurance agency and what information they will need to begin their assessment process.

* Identify a place where your pets can stay for the short term during an emergency.

* Figure out where you can stay for a few days.

On Thursday morning, in 5-degree temperatures, Kim Ricciardelli, 31, and Bryan Cocchio, 35, were picking through the ruins, looking for salvageable items they could put in their undamaged garage.

They wore Carhart coveralls; underneath, Ricciardelli wore her pajamas -- the only clothes she owns now.

They had many unanswered questions about their future.

They didn't know what to do with their dog. They didn't know where they would sleep Thursday night. They didn't know what services might be available to them and, without any significant savings, they didn't know where next week's food would come from.

"We're kind of in shock," Ricciardelli said.

Eric Lynes, Red Cross response manager for Maine, said the immediate aftermath of a fire is extremely stressful. Once the crisis passes, the value of what has been lost and the difficulty of the road ahead begins to sink in, he said.

"We help people compartmentalize some of the trauma that they're feeling," he said. "People are surprised by how they feel after a disaster. It can bring up feelings that they've never experienced before."

Lynes said those who are dealing with trauma tend not to think, move, or act as clearly as they normally do, which is common.

Establishing a routine that is as close as possible to everyday life is a good way to begin getting one's life back on track, he said.

"It's important to search for that sense of normalcy," he said, "a routine that they were involved with prior to the disaster."

With the Red Cross responding to 70,000 disasters nationally every year, Lynes said, there's no reason to think of them as a rare event.

"I can promise you that today, somewhere, someone is standing on their lawn or in their driveway and watching their house burn," he said.

On Wednesday, that someone was Ricciardelli, who, about 6 p.m., flicked a switch to activate the heating tape beneath the mobile home on Route 139, also called Unity Road, as a precaution against the forecast minus-16 degree weather.

The first sign that her life was about to change for the worse came five minutes later, when, while emailing a friend, she smelled smoke coming from the kitchen.

An hour later, it was all over. Ricciardelli, who weighs 120 pounds, carried Max, their aging 100-pound Rottweiler-mastiff mix, out of the home through smoke so thick she couldn't see her hands in front of her face.

Cocchio, a mechanic and contractor, was just yards away, working on a blue Blazer in his garage on the same property. When Ricciardelli called and told him what was going on, he entered the house, opened windows and tried to find the flame. Before emergency workers arrived, Cocchio tore the skirting off the mobile home and saw what looked like a manageable "little fluff of fire," he said.

He emptied a large fire extinguisher into it, but it wasn't enough.

What they were left with was a burned-out shell of a home and five or six cardboard boxes filled with every possession they could salvage.

Among the lost items are appliances, a new bed, all their clothing, and notebooks containing 10 years' worth of Ricciardelli's creative writing. They carried no insurance on the home, Cocchio said.

Cocchio, who said he has had no problems with the heating tape over the past 12 years, recommended that people make sure that their heating tape is properly wrapped before using it.

Lynes said even those who take precautions sometimes suffer from fires that start in other locations, or for unpredictable reasons.

When a fire takes a person's home, he said, emergency responders contact the Red Cross to help the victims, often by providing food, shelter and clothing during those first few days.

Lynes said families often struggle with multiple issues.

"Housing is the most difficult piece to put back together," he said.

Equally important, he said, is looking after the family's emotional well being, as people blasted by trauma try to be a good parent in a suddenly chaotic world.

"Children, all they want to know is that they're going to be loved and cared for," he said. "That's the bottom line. When they're asking for that stuffed animal that was destroyed, what they're really asking for is that comfort."

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling -- 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com

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