Saturday, September 23, 2023

After the fire: Virginia Beach condo residents’ tales of loss, learning, community

VIRGINIA BEACH — Shaleen Fischetti was breastfeeding her infant daughter when she thought she heard the sound of water being poured onto the deck of her Oceanfront condo.

Confused, the 32-year-old photographer turned around to check out the noise. She quickly realized it wasn’t water she was hearing, but the sound of her condominium being engulfed in flames.

“It wasn’t water I heard,” she said. “It was crackling.”

Fischetti, her husband, Mike, and their 4-month-old daughter, Fiona, were three of 17 people displaced when Summer’s Point Condominiums caught fire on May 4.

No one was injured in the fire, but 12 condos were damaged by smoke and flames. Other units were damaged by water and broken glass, and the fire caused part of the roof of the third-floor end units to collapse, according to the Virginia Beach Fire Department.

VBFD investigators determined that a faulty outdoor light caused the blaze.

Now, nearly two months after the fire displaced them, Fischetti and her neighbors are focusing on putting the blaze in the past, salvaging what’s left of their material lives and moving forward.

“Barefoot and exposed”

Years of elementary school “stop, drop and roll” training didn’t prepare Fischetti for watching her home go up in smoke.

After spotting the fire creeping up the back wall of the home, Fischetti went back into her condo, put Fiona in her bedroom and ran into the hallway to alert her elderly next-door neighbor, Vinia Bennett. She banged on the woman’s door so fiercely that her hands bruised.

Panicked, Fischetti grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put the flames out herself while screaming for help. She quickly realized the fire was too out of control for her efforts to matter.

“It was vicious,” she said. “It was already on the second deck.”

Defeated, Fischetti grabbed Fiona and ran outside, handing the infant to friends who had gathered around the complex.

“I was totally barefoot and exposed because I’d been breastfeeding,” she said, adding that her friends gave her the shoes off their feet.

Worried about her 11-year-old dog, Aesa, Fischetti ran back inside the condo to save her. Aesa was nowhere to be found, but was eventually rescued in a nearby neighborhood about five hours after the fire.

She also tried to find her laptop in the burning condo — without luck. In retrospect, she wishes she’d grabbed her external hard drive which held many of her family’s personal photos, as well as those she took at a wedding ceremony she’d been hired to photograph in Urbanna the Saturday before the fire.

Fischetti uses SD cards to save her professional photos. Typically, she’d let them sit out on her desk while she edits them, but the morning before the fire she put four SD cards from the wedding into their plastic cases. She was able to recover them from the rubble but hasn’t put them into a computer yet to see if any pictures were saved.

“It’s a fear thing,” Fischetti said. “I still get shocked about everything that’s been lost.”

Three plastic bins

A photographer by trade, Fischetti began documenting the devastation left from the fire on her Instagram account about a month after it happened.

Pictures show the seared walls of the condo she and her husband shared for seven years dotted with insulation hanging from the roof like deflated cotton candy. A pile of nearly indistinguishable rubble covered the floor of what was her living room. Among it was a charred guitar with broken strings.

“We loved that place,” she said. “Everything was lost in the fire. It’s 10 years of our life that we built together.”

Between the burnt pieces of her life, Fischetti was able to salvage three plastic bins of personal items. Included were love letters she and her husband wrote in the early days of their relationship, their marriage certificate, Fiona’s birth certificate and some clothing.

Two floors above Fischetti’s condo, 45-year-old Neha Patel’s belongings were also going up in flames.

Patel, who is the director of information technology for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, was in Colorado visiting her father who had just had surgery when the fire erupted. Her 20-year-old son, who lives with her and attends Tidewater Community College, was in India.

Although Patel heard about the fire shortly after it happened, she stayed in Colorado for a week to spend time with her family. She knew it was serious, but she didn’t expect the scene that she came home to.

Her roof was caved in, water and building material covered almost everything she owned and bugs had taken over. Tokens Patel collected on her travels abroad were scorched, as well as paintings she’d created over the years.

Also lost were a years worth of notes and studies her son labored over to prepare for his certification to become a property builder.

“It put him back one year,” Patel said. “He’s ordered the books again. He’s keeping a positive outlook. You have to meet whatever challenges life throws at you.”

Patel said that she had renter’s insurance to cover some of her losses because her landlord required her to before she moved in. Thinking that disaster would never strike her, she’d opted for the cheapest level of insurance that cost her about $150 a year. In the case of emergency, the insurance covered $10,000 in damages.

Patel’s losses during the fire approached $100,000.

Last week, Patel moved into an Oceanfront apartment on 24th Street while she waits for her old condo to be rebuilt. She said she will never aim low with renters insurance again. The plan she’s looking at now will cost $700 a year, but would help far more if she were to lose everything again.

“I just got the minimum not realizing this could have a huge impact on me getting back on my feet,” Patel said. “You should plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Waiting game

Ray Cibull, 54, who bought his second-floor condo less than two years ago, said Summer’s Point Condominiums won’t be move-in ready for another year.

“Now they can’t even start on it because they can’t get permits because they don’t have the original building plans,” Cibull said. “So nothing’s even started yet.”

Cibull has been a truck driver for more than 25 years, and was on the road when his son-in-law sent him a picture of condos on fire that he’d seen circulating on Twitter.

“He said, ‘Ray this looks a lot like your condo,'” Cibull said. “Yep. Sure enough.”

Cibull, who spends most of his days driving, said he didn’t know his neighbors very well when the fire struck. It took him a long time to figure out who he could call to confirm his building was on fire.

Although he lost most of his belongings, Cibull said one thing he gained from the fire was a closer relationship with his neighbors and the Virginia Beach community. Since the fire, people have fundraised on his behalf and invited him into their homes.

“I saved some stuff, like clothes, and I washed them, but they still smell like smoke,” Cibull said. “The community down here in Virginia Beach has been very generous with fundraising and monetary things … I’m very impressed by what everybody has done.”

Cibull said the fire hasn’t changed his life as much as it has for his neighbors. He bought the condo already furnished, his insurance is covering the damage and he already has a bed in the back of his truck that he plans to live in for the next year.

“It hasn’t changed my life,” he said. “It’s nice to have a place to get out of the truck and just relax and have a normal life some of the time, but I’ll just live in the truck for a year.”

Fischetti and her family say they don’t plan to move back to their condo after it’s rebuilt because they are closing on a home of their own in August. While she’s excited to move into a new space, Fischetti said the shock of the fire still keeps her up at night.

“The day of the fire my daughter turned four months old,” Fischetti said. “I’m going to make sure she doesn’t have candles at her first birthday.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled Shaleen Fischetti’s last name.

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