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Published December 31 2010

Galleria apartment tenants want fire investigation reopened

Tenants displaced by the Galleria On 42nd apartment fire in south Fargo are worried an investigator’s listing of the cause as “undetermined” could jeopardize their chances of filing claims with the company that insured the first-floor unit where the fire started.

About a month after the Oct. 11 fire, tenants got a letter from a claims representative from Depositors Insurance Co., a Nationwide Insurance company.

“I am the claim representative who has been assigned to handle your claim and have been trying to contact you regarding your apartment fire,” stated the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Forum. “Could you please phone me at your earliest convenience to discuss your damages related to a fire in your apartment building?”

The Nov. 9 letter lists the company’s insured as the couple who lived in Apartment No. 114 where the fire started.

Fargo Fire Capt. John Arens, who investigated the fire, said it started on the deck near a plastic coffee can used for disposing of cigarette butts.

However, no one would admit to smoking there, Arens told The Forum this week when explaining the “undetermined” ruling.

Matt Philipenko, who was resident manager of the Galleria apartments with his wife, Dana, said the letter was welcome news for tenants who didn’t have renter’s insurance or who, like himself, were underinsured. His family’s third-floor unit directly above No. 114 was destroyed.

“I know so many people that didn’t have insurance and they were waiting on this to kind of come out and go, ‘Oh good, it’s going to be covered,’ and then they can recoup some of their loss,” he said.

Karissa Yates, who lived down the hall from Philipenko with her husband and two young children, said she didn’t receive a copy of the letter, likely because she didn’t have a forwarding address for a while after the fire. She heard about it a couple of weeks ago and contacted the insurance company to get a copy but hadn’t received it yet, she said.

Yates didn’t have renter’s insurance, and the letter is her only recourse for making a claim, she said.

“It was definitely something I was thinking about, as far as maybe some people can get compensated that had lost everything,” she said.

She said the ruling of the fire’s cause as undetermined was disheartening.

“There’s a lot of people saying it was a grill, it was a cigarette, it was the wiring,” she said. “It would just be nice to know exactly what it was so something could happen with an insurance claim.”

Philipenko said the claims representative who sent the letter told him by phone that the letter was being sent to all Galleria tenants. The fire displaced about 150 people and killed several pets.

The claims representative is out of the office until Jan. 6, according to his voicemail.

Questions about the letter were referred to Nancy Smeltzer, a spokeswoman for Allied Insurance, another Nationwide company that would handle any claims. She said Allied “has the fire investigator’s report and will consider it as part of the investigation that is currently under way” by Allied’s own investigators. She said she couldn’t comment further.

A listed phone number for the tenants who were living in Apt. 114 was disconnected.

Philipenko posted a message Wednesday on a Facebook page set up for Galleria residents, asking for input on ways to reopen the fire investigation, which Arens said is essentially closed unless other information comes to light.

Nate Anderson, another third-floor resident, estimated he and his wife lost $25,000 to $30,000 worth of property in the fire. They also didn’t have renter’s insurance.

“My policy ended up sitting on the corner of my desk too long,” he said.

Anderson said he would “definitely” file a claim if given the chance, but he isn’t counting on it.

He said he “basically just kind of laughed” when he heard the fire’s cause was ruled undetermined.

“We all know where it started, what kind of happened and everything, but it sounds like it’s just because they can’t prove that a cigarette was thrown into this plastic container that’s down in the front corner (of the deck), that it’s ruled undetermined,” he said.

“We’ve accepted it,” he added. “Was it a careless mistake? Yeah, it probably was. But you can’t keep going around blaming people. And you have to move on.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528