‘We are homeless’: With rebuilding yet to begin, future unclear for some Timber Creek condo owners displaced by fire 


Many residents of the Timber Creek condos have been neighbors for a long time, so it’s no surprise that they meet frequently for coffee or a meal.

Except, it’s been nearly a year since many of them have lived in close proximity to each other, as a fire in April 2023 made 36 condos uninhabitable. Those residents have been displaced since the blaze, but they keep gathering in hope that they’ll be neighbors again soon.

“We’re still keeping the feeling of home and family,” said Christie Fowler, who lived in Timber Creek for more than 20 years.

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From left, displaced Timber Creek residents George Vesper, Susan Stach, Christie Fowler, Lisha Xu and Leslie Seldon dine together Feb. 22. (Photo courtesy of Christie Fowler)

The residents initially believed they’d be able to move back home by the end of 2023, but with reconstruction yet to begin the most recent estimate is that the building will be ready in early 2025.

As they wait, the building’s inhabitants have scattered throughout the area, with many ending up in nearby apartment complexes. For some, as the timeline to rebuild has dragged on, loss-of-use insurance payouts to cover temporary housing are about to run dry, which would leave those with a mortgage on their condo paying out of pocket for two living spaces.

That includes Terri Siler, who is living in an apartment near Carmel High School with her teenage daughter until her first-floor condo is habitable again. She received $20,000 through her loss-of-use insurance coverage to pay for a temporary place to live, but she said the funds are nearly gone.

“We are just a few months away from our anniversary of this fire, and (condo building insurer) State Farm has finally approved moving forward,” Siler said. “I was trying to express to the agent that we are homeless. I will have no way to pay the rent here. My funds will run out at the end of May, and I have to figure out a way to pay rent here or move somewhere I don’t have to pay rent. Rent is not cheap, even if it wasn’t in Carmel.”

Fowler, a third-floor Timber Creek resident, is living in an apartment in Westfield until she can move back home. She said her loss-of-use coverage should pay for 18 months of temporary housing, which means she is likely to face four months or more of mortgage and rent payments at the same time.

“The rent I’m paying is two and a half times more than my mortgage,” she said. “I thought the amount I had in my loss-of-use bucket would be enough, that I would never need something for a year, two years. There are people that are worse off, and they’re going to be out of money very soon with their insurance. So you don’t know what you’re going to do.”

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The Carmel Fire Department battles a blaze on April 17, 2023, at the Timber Creek condominiums. (Photo courtesy of George Vesper)

Although each condo owner has individual insurance plans, the building itself is insured by State Farm, which finalized a plan Feb. 16 to replace the slab, an early step in rebuilding.

Working with State Farm and displaced residents to coordinate the insurance process and subsequent rebuild has nearly become a full-time job for Dana Stout, director of community association management for Association Management, Inc. It took time to review the 1,000-plus-page insurance estimate outlining the rebuild, determine code upgrades required for the new building and work through the layers of approval required by State Farm to move forward, she said.

“State Farm has been working. I’ve never been out of the loop,” Stout said. “I haven’t always liked the delays, but in reality, it’s a huge claim. They are a corporation, so they have to go up to the ivory towers, as I call it, to get approval, but I’ve never been left in the dark by them.”

State Farm declined to comment on the specifics of an individual customer claim, citing company privacy policy.

“Each claim is unique and handled based on its own individual merits. We continue to actively work with our customer to understand the facts of their loss, identify the damages and applicable coverage, and ultimately resolve their claim. Claims with structural damage may include consultation with engineers and experts to help determine the full scope of the damage and help define appropriate repairs. With any claim, State Farm seeks to provide our customers all benefits to which they are entitled within the terms of the insurance policy,” stated Angie Harrier, a State Farm spokesperson.

Bryndon Preston, a 10-year resident of Timber Creek, said his condo is paid off, but he is upset with the lengthening reconstruction timeline causing financial hardship for many of his neighbors. He is encouraging everyone to review their loss-of-use coverage to ensure it will cover years of displacement. He plans to meet with his insurance agent every year on April 17 – the anniversary of the fire – to review his coverage.

“We’re going to look at what rent costs, and we’re going to look at how many years I can buy,  because I’m getting two or three years of loss-of-use coverage forever and ever until I die,” he said. “Murphy’s Law says as soon as I get back home, something’s going to happen again, and I want to make sure that I learned from this.”

For third-floor condo owner George Vesper, covering rent in his temporary apartment isn’t a concern, as his loss-of-use insurance should last well beyond the anticipated date to move back home. His bigger struggle was realizing he was underinsured in another area, as his policy only covered between 50 to 60 percent of his lost personal inventory, which included approximately 5,000 comic books and other collectibles.

But it was the irreplaceable items he misses the most, he said, including a stuffed Tigger doll he’s had since childhood, an ornament he’s owned since his first Christmas, family photos and mementoes, and a “Star Wars” tie, which he described as the only present his father ever gave him.

“I lost everything, 50 years of my life,” Vesper said. “The hard part is that you can’t grieve all of that at once, so it just hits you really regularly. I’ve never in my life had emotions so strong that my knees buckle, but that’s how that grief has hit me.”

Fowler said it was difficult to lose nearly all of her possessions at once, but it’s not her greatest concern.

“Most of us have gotten to the point where you don’t cry every day over the things you don’t have anymore,” she said. “You’re still going to miss them, but you don’t cry about them all the time. What you cry about is (wondering) when am I going to get home? Because I can’t do anything. I’m stuck. I own a piece of property that’s not there.”

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George Vesper in the hall way of his temporary apartment building. (Photo by Adam Seif)

Neighbor credits third-floor ‘hero’ for saving lives

It doesn’t take long for anyone visiting George Vesper’s Carmel apartment to realize he’s a fan of superheroes and vintage pop culture. A quick glance around the third-story space reveals “Star Wars”-themed landscapes, a growing comic book collection and a pair of hand puppets at rest near the kitchen area.

But perhaps the most unique item on display is a frame holding a Kermit the Frog sock signed by the musician who wrote many of the songs performed by the famous amphibian. Unlike the rest of his collection, it’s the only piece of memorabilia he’s owned since before April 17, 2023, the day his home of 20 years burned to the ground when early morning winds quickly spread flames through a Timber Creek condominium building on City Center Drive.

“The only thing I had left was what I was wearing: a shirt, PJ bottoms, my phone, shoes and one Kermit the Frog sock,” Vesper said. “I’m still not sure why I put just one sock on.”

Vesper, 52, is among the residents of 36 condos who have been displaced since the blaze, which he said started in a second-story condo below him. A Carmel Fire Department investigation concluded the fire began accidentally but was unable to determine what started the blaze, which led to an estimated $5.4 million in damage. Two thirds of the building has been demolished, and the remaining portion is still uninhabitable.

For Vesper, it all began with a bad night’s sleep the day of the fire. It caused him to get up much earlier than normal, which is when he noticed something unusual through his closed bedroom blinds. When he went to investigate, he saw flames shooting up, and they appeared to be spreading – fast.

“It looked like a storm, because you could see the branches moving,” he said. “I ran into my living room and saw my balcony was just covered in flames. My first thought was that I was surrounded. It was like my place was transported to hell.”

Thankfully, the hallway was clear, so Vesper left his unit – and called 911 – and began knocking on his neighbors’ doors to alert them of the fire. Christie Fowler, another third-floor resident, credits Vesper with helping her evacuate unscathed.

“If he hadn’t awoke and then woke us up, I’m not sure we would’ve been able to get out the front door,” she said. “People tell you that fire is loud, and it is. It sounded like a freight train going through.”

Others living in the building learned of the fire in different ways. Terri Siler, a bus driver who lived on the first floor, learned of the fire through an alert that popped up on the Pulse Point app, which provides real-time information about nearby 911 runs, as she got ready for work.

“I was putting my shoes on and the app went off,” she said. “I looked at the address and said, ‘Oh crap, that’s our building.’”

Siler, like Vesper, began knocking on her neighbors’ doors, waking them and urging them to evacuate. She and her daughter and their dog escaped unharmed.

Vesper’s cat he had raised from birth, Rebound, wasn’t so fortunate. After alerting his neighbors of the fire, he returned to his condo to find her hiding under his bed, refusing to come out.

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George Vesper’s cat, Rebound, is one of two pets that didn’t survive the blaze. (Photo courtesy of George Vesper)

“She was just out of reach. Then I heard a piece of wood crack – not the kind of sound you want to hear – so I ran outside,” Vesper said. “I could hear glass breaking behind me. I turned around and you could see the second and third floor just engulfed in flames.”

Vesper held out hope for months that Rebound had escaped, but a trap he set in the area only caught two other cats and “a bunch of raccoons.” He no longer believes she survived the blaze.

“It was depressing to look almost every day for three months and come up empty,” he said. “It’s a struggle to hold on to hope, be disappointed and slowly realize she is gone.”

Though Vesper wasn’t able to rescue Rebound, Fowler believes his actions “saved a lot of people that day.”

“I’m very grateful to still be here,” Fowler said. “George is a hero in my book.”

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Crews demolish an area of the Timber Creek condo building that includes Christie Fowler’s third-floor bathroom, where a shelf was still visible. (Photo courtesy of Christie Fowler)

How to help

The Good Samaritan Network has been providing assistance to the Timber Creek fire victims since the blaze in the form of gift cards, donated quilts and other efforts. Nancy Chance, GSN founder and executive director, said she is working with the Clay Township trustee to determine other ways to help as some of the displaced residents could soon begin to face increased financial struggles.

Community members may donate to the Timber Creek residents through GSN by visiting gsnlive.kindful.com/?campaign=1081288.