“I’LL GET ARRESTED if I have to,” a resident has said, in a bid to retrieve her sentimental belongings following the Arborfield fire.
Thirty-three households were affected by the blaze at Hayloft House earlier this year.
Now, after losing their homes, some Arborfield Green residents have been told they can no longer salvage any items which survived the disaster as mould, decay and toxic fumes have left them irretrievable.
On Thursday, April 15, a block of flats in The Cavalry development was gutted by a blaze, leaving 33 households homeless, although alternative accommodation was made available, and community groups and churches rallied round to help those affected.
Fire crews were on the scene for several days helping make the building safe.
No other buildings were affected and all residents got out of the flats safely.
Five months on, Wokingham.Today spoke to two former residents who have been affected by the incident.
Stacey Cooper, whose name has been changed, lived in Hayloft House – the building which caught fire. She said she was told in August that her belongings are no longer retrievable.
Now, she is demanding Savills, which manages the property, explains why it cannot give her items back and wants to know what will happen to them now.
Now, Ms Cooper is demanding Savills, which manages the property, explains why it cannot give her items back and wants to know what will happen to them now.
“They’ve decided the building is not structurally safe,” Ms Cooper explained.
“Originally they said that though we [the residents] couldn’t go in, they could maybe get an engineer to do it.
“Now I believe they could still salvage our stuff, but because of the cost they’re not going to – they don’t want to spend the money.”
Ms Cooper has said she is willing to be arrested in a bid to salvage a safe which contains sentimental souvenirs from her children’s lives.
“I’m devastated, absolutely devastated,” she added. “Every single thing I’ve had, I’ve lost it. I’m not prepared to lose the one thing I’ll get back.”
Ms Cooper, who lived by herself in her flat, lost her husband to cancer when he was in his 50s.
After he died, her children wanted to store their mementos in her home.
“At the time, all of our boys were moving around so they asked me to keep hold of birthday and Christmas cards with [their father’s] writing on them,” she explained.
“[Now] things like that have gone and you can’t ever get that back.”
‘We deserve answers’
Savills has not yet been able to confirm whether the top floor of Hayloft House, or the entire building, will be demolished – but Ms Cooper said residents need answers.
She is worried that when her safe is brought down, it could be recycled or end up in someone’s else’s ownership.
“[Salvaging the safe] needs to be possible because if it doesn’t end up in my hands, it’ll end up in someone else’s,” she said. “I don’t believe what I’m being told.
“If I have to stand out there for three days and three nights or get arrested, I will damn well do it to get my stuff back.”
This has been echoed by fellow Hayloft House resident Stuart Coleman, whose name has also been changed. He accused Savills of “taking their sweet time” to return his belongings.
Three boxes of his items have been retrieved so far, but he said they were in poor quality because they were allegedly left in the building for too long.
“Today, we still don’t know what’s happening,” Mr Coleman said.
“There are rumours Savills will demolish the building,g but nobody has confirmed it.
“It feels like they are killing time and it’s very inappropriate.”
‘It’s too dangerous’
A spokesperson for Savills said the fire left Hayloft House structurally insecure, making it too dangerous for anybody to step foot inside.
They said while the owner of Hayloft House hired disaster recovery specialists to retrieve some personal belongings, only the ground and first floors could be accessed.
“When those specialists gained access to the building, they discovered that it would only be possible to retrieve items of special significance or sentimental value,” they explained.
This was because of “considerable levels” of fire, smoke and water damage which varied from flat to flat.
The spokesperson continued: “It has not yet been possible to make the top floor of the building sufficiently safe for anyone to enter … and given the extent of the damage, the former residents of these flats were told in early August that regrettably, it was highly unlikely that the retrieval specialist would be able to access this floor.”
After exploring the two floors below, the recovery team found a lot of furniture and belongings have been affected by mould and decay – and they are likely to be toxic.
“We know that the residents on the top floor are bitterly disappointed with this news, which we completely understand, but we must be guided by the advice which the specialists have provided,” the spokesperson added.
“This advice concerns not just the condition of the building but also whether the tenants possessions in themselves represent a risk to health and safety.
“Savills has not lied to residents [and] is saddened by the fact that any residents feel they have been lied to.
“The situation has developed and sometimes the news has changed in a way which the residents have understandably found disappointing, but this does not mean that they have been lied to.
“Savills have not and would not lie to them.”
The building owner is still considering whether any further salvage may be possible.
Savills is now asking former Hayloft House residents to appreciate the order work has to be done in the wake of the fire.
“Savills are the managing agents on site, and we do not have the authority to make decisions,” the spokesperson said, explaining why it took five months to update households on the status of their items.
“This rests with our client, the building’s owner, [who] has taken advice from the retrieval specialists who have only recently gained entry to the site and inspected what they could.”
They said the recovery team could only enter the House after the taskforce investigating the cause of fire completed their work
They continued: “Acting on advice from the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, Hayloft House had been cordoned off from the date of the fire. Access was forbidden on the basis that the structure was no longer stable.”
They said the Rescue Service could enter the building from Friday, July 9.
“Each of these tasks has taken time, and we appreciate how frustrating that must have been for the residents, but all parties have been working as fast as possible,” they added.
Life after the fire
Since the fire, Mr Coleman said adjusting to his new life has been “heartbreaking” — and alleged Savills’ approach to managing its former residents has been “very insensitive”.
“While the fire was going on, we were told to stand in the car park and they didn’t know where to put us,” he said.
“We all moped around while the blaze was raging because there was no emergency meeting spot.
“It was very embarrassing.”
He said the estate agent has since made numerous promises to residents and alleged they have been unfulfilled.
“They said they issued all Hayloft House residents state-of-the-art furniture but that was a lie,” Mr Coleman said.
“When we moved into another block, they gave us one second-hand armchair and one second-hand bed — they smelt and had marks on them.
“It was an absolute disgrace, and we don’t ever feel like we’re taken seriously.”
He said the entire incident and the following five months have been distressing for him and his wife.
“It’s always a guessing game and we rarely get a straight answer,” he continued. “We thought Savills would give us someone to speak to for mental health, but they didn’t give us anything.
“It’s been a joke and they don’t understand what the fire has done to us mentally.”
This has been echoed by Ms Cooper who said life after the blaze is “indescribable”.
On the day of the fire, she watched as her apartment went up in flames and came away with only the outfit she was wearing and her phone in hand.
“It’s terrible,” she said. “I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s like.
“It’s so echoey where I am now, in a new flat, because I can’t afford to buy anything.”
Ms Cooper currently sleeps on a second-hand mattress with no bed frame, stores her clothes on the floor because she cannot afford a dresser, and uses hand-me-down cutlery and glasses.
“I’ve received things from others which is incredibly kind,” she added, “but how do you live like that?
“I’m grateful for the things I have been given and I’m not in a position to go and buy new furniture, but at my time of life it’s devastating.”
‘We are here for you’
The spokesperson for Savills said the company has done its best to support Hayloft House residents after the incident.
“[We] have been [their] first port of call not just for their day to day needs but also for news and updates,” they said.
“Savills have done their best to answer residents’ needs and to provide them with what information we have been given ourselves.”
They said on the day of the blaze, households were escorted to a designated emergency meeting
point which happened to be in a public spot.
“Savills are sorry that residents found this an exposed [space] but having considered the layout of the site,
the fire safety specialists designated it as the safest and most obvious place for residents to gather in the event of an emergency,” they explained.
The company said Hayloft House residents who chose to live elsewhere in The Cavalry after the
fire were offered half price furniture, and some second-hand pieces were offered for free with the help of local charities.
It also distributed pamphlets with designated helplines from charities to support residents’ mental health in the aftermath of the fire.
“We would again like to say how sorry we are that any of the residents believe that we have not taken their needs seriously because that is not the case,” the spokesperson said.
“We have tried to approach what has been an immensely difficult and challenging time for residents with patience, tact, and understanding.”