Gail Ingram never expected her life to be reduced to the one-room existence of a Midtown chain hotel. But nearly 10 months after almost all her belongings and her entire Hell’s Kitchen apartment was destroyed in a fire, the New Yorker has spent upwards of $90,000 and is caught in a cycle of fighting for insurance reimbursement, replacing her personal and business equipment and making do without a kitchen for months on end — a fate she says could happen to anyone unlucky enough to experience one of the city’s frequent apartment fires.
Gail’s 11th Avenue building, adjacent to The Daily Show studios, caught fire in June 2022, the blaze later attributed to lithium-ion batteries. “The Red Cross showed up [on the day of the fire] and they gave me a sweatsuit, a blanket, a bottle of water, a bag of toiletries and a $500 credit card,” said Gail, who escaped the fire with almost nothing. “I left my passport, I left my jewelry box, I left everything in the apartment,” said Gail. “I wasn’t thinking straight. I was thinking about my cats and medicine and that’s it.” While one of Gail’s cats was located shortly after the fire, it would be later in the week before she was safely reunited with both pets. Ninety percent of her apartment was destroyed, including $24,000 in renovations she had just made to expand her home office as a nurse practitioner.
While no one can predict a fire, Gail had bought a renter’s insurance policy — a proactive step that many would assume could help her recoup her financial losses. But the insurance company, which operates with out-of-state claims adjusters, balked at the cost of living in New York and refused to reimburse Gail for anything they deemed more expensive than their pricing standards. “I don’t want renter’s insurance to be cast in the light of ‘the hero that swooped in and saved the day’,” said Gail, “because it has been very difficult to work with them.”
The renter’s insurance company has fought every reimbursement submission, denying everything from the purchase of clothing to the hotel Gail has had to call home for the better part of a year, and costing her thousands in out-of-pocket lawyer fees to advocate for appropriate coverage. And when it comes to her business, the policy only covered $1,000 in damages — not even enough to pay for a laptop. She told W42ST that she is in student loan debt to the tune of $250,000 from her nursing license, with no forseeable way to make back the money without her business.
“They don’t understand how New York City works,” said Gail. “There’s no way I can tell the adjuster I am in a Midtown tourist hotel that in any other city would be called a motel. Almost everything I own is destroyed, they’re saying, well, you’re not worthy of us paying out this money — we need you to jump through all these hoops, and it’s going to be dehumanizing.”
In addition to collecting, submitting and fighting for coverage for replacement purchases and past losses, she’s had to pay for the storage of the few items salvaged from the fire. The insurance company selected a $900 a month, remote New Jersey location for her belongings and Gail has paid hundreds of dollars in Ubers to travel there while sorting through her things.
“I have to try to salvage my family heirlooms — I’m not going to let go of my grandma’s rosary or the family ancestry trees,” she said. Gail was able to negotiate moving her things to a $600 a month unit, but with nowhere else to go but her one-room hotel lodging, there’s no knowing how long she’ll be paying the fee.
Stuck in financial and housing limbo, she’s advocating in housing court for a safe return to her home in Hell’s Kitchen — a process she estimates will continue to drag, due to damage from the fire and underlying safety issues already present in the building. “There was already so much wrong with that building — there were plumbing problems, holes in the wall and when the Department of Buildings showed up on the day of the fire, that’s when it was evident that there was a lot going on structurally that needed to be fixed,” said Gail. “The owner has to hire an engineer who comes in and assesses the safety and when their engineer submits that to the Department of Buildings and they agree it’s safe, then the construction crew can go in.”
Due to issues with the management company, Gail is worried about the safety of her fellow tenants and hired a structural engineer to help assess the maintenance needs — another out-of-pocket expense. “I want the building to be safe when I move in — and even if it’s not for me, I want it to be safe for everyone,” she said, adding that not all of her fellow tenants were in a position to publicly oppose the building’s management.
For now, she waits, amassing more and more bills. “They told us it could be two years [before we move back in],” said Gail. She’s sharing her story to show how easily one fire can destroy a New Yorker’s life savings — and that it can happen to anyone. “There’s very little sympathy for someone who seems successful on social media,” she added. “They don’t realize what’s going on behind the scenes — you’ve got to check on your friends if their apartment blows up.”
Recently, Gail returned to her storage unit to continue the process of whittling down what to keep during her long tenure without a permanent home. “Guess what was there? Twelve e-bikes lined up inside,” she said with a shudder. Suddenly, she was back to the day her life turned upside down. “It’s because of those things I got my stuff destroyed.”