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‘Disheartening’ experience for Riverhead family after storage fire destroys decades of belongings

Deanna Andes was aboard a plane traveling to California when a news alert popped onto her phone. Early on the morning of Dec. 15, a fire had damaged CubeSmart storage units in Riverhead.

Ms. Andes and her husband rented two units at the facility off Mill Road for about five years. In it, they stored a variety of items, from lawn and pool supplies to Christmas decorations and other personal mementos that wouldn’t otherwise fit in their Riverhead home’s small garage. 

Ms. Andes reached out to her husband, who assured her that with so many units there, it was unlikely their specific units had been damaged. They couldn’t tell for sure based on the photo in the news story where the damaged units were located.

Her husband, a pilot for Delta Airlines, was about to leave for Denver to pick up their son who attends the University of Colorado, Boulder. Later that night, her husband and son arrived back in New York and proceeded to check on the storage unit.

It was around midnight when they finally realized they had been the unlucky ones. They couldn’t get too close since fire and police still had the area blocked off for the investigation, but they knew many of their belongings were likely gone.

“It was kind of disheartening to not get a call at all saying, ‘Hey, your unit’s burned down,’ ” Ms. Andes said, adding that communication from the storage company was lacking.

A week would pass before they heard anything from CubeSmart, when a generic letter arrived from the company’s corporate office.

The fire had been intentionally set by a homeless man, according to Riverhead Town police. The 60-year-old man was arrested and charged with fourth-degree arson, police said last month.

For the Andes family, they were left to pick up the pieces as years’ worth of personal belongings were suddenly gone.

“It’s like a big glob. There’s nothing to sift through,” Ms. Andes said.

High school yearbooks were among the personal items destroyed. (Courtesy photo)

She stored fabric, sewing materials and tools she used for her work in fashion styling and costuming in the units and would retrieve them when needed.

“All of that stuff was melted because they were in buckets,” she said.

There were golf clubs, ski equipment and lacrosse gear. Her daughter had stored belongings there when she moved to Los Angeles. Her niece had stored household items there as well before moving to France to be with her dying mother.

“It’s like a shock wave,” Ms. Andes said.

They began the tedious work of documenting as many items as they could for their insurance claim, which quickly began to add up into the thousands. When they rented the unit, they chose to use personal insurance rather than through CubeSmart, a decision Ms. Andes said paid off, given the lack of communication from the company. It wasn’t the monetary loss that hurt as much as the personal items they can’t get back. The decades worth of Christmas ornaments. The high school yearbooks for her four kids, who attended either Bishop McGann-Mercy High School or Riverhead High School. More than 30 years of items collected during the family’s travels. All gone.

“It’s the stuff you don’t think about,” she said.

Ms. Andes’ tradition has been to decorate for Christmas a week before the holiday. So she hadn’t retrieved all of the items out of storage yet when the fire occurred.

She ended up buying whatever she could at HomeGoods and picked up a small tree at Lowe’s. 

“I literally bought whatever ornaments they had left, whatever lights they had left,” she said. “We made do. It’s a first-world problem.”

Christmas gifts this year turned into replacements for items lost like golf clubs and skis.

“You don’t even think about what you have in your unit because you just store stuff there,” she said.

As Ms. Andes reflected on the ordeal, she offered a word of advice: “If you can store it at home, don’t use a storage unit.”