Moving Forward After a House Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a house almost burns to the ground, do the owners use the insurance money to buy another property or rebuild?

Jill and Dennis Cocco, whose home was destroyed in a $10-million residential fire in Newport Beach last August, were initially ready to walk away from the mess and the misery.

"It was devastating," said Dennis Cocco, 47, president of Clare Micronix Integrated Systems Inc., a microchip manufacturing firm in Aliso Viejo. Despite the efforts of 50 firefighters, most of the 15,000-square-foot home was in ashes. Gone were 36 rooms filled with antiques, fine art and custom Belgian rugs.

Fortunately, no one was in the three-story home when a defective exterior light ignited the fire that gutted the brick structure.

"The month after the fire I was in total shock," said Jill Cocco, 49, who was so discouraged by the devastation that she wanted out of tony Harbor Ridge.

"Then it hit me: This is why we had insurance," she said. "Finding another house is the last thing I want to do."

Restoring the 15-year-old Southern Colonial home, which the couple had bought a year before the fire, has been a daunting task. Restoring the family's sense of security has been even more challenging.

"Until the geological studies were analyzed, we weren't sure if they could save the foundation and basic structure because of all the water used to douse the fire," Dennis said. But about three months after the fire, the couple began the reconstruction.

The Cocco's full-replacement insurance was "the best we could get," Dennis said. It was sufficient to cover the existing structure; they have been paying for upgrades themselves.

With the family of seven living temporarily in Newport Coast, an army of plumbers, cabinetmakers and other workers has taken over the mansion, working steadfastly to restructure it by December.

The Coccos' primary concern was to ensure there can be no electrical malfunction, no next time. They have added fire sprinklers, fire-breaks (dividers in the attic to break up the air space into smaller areas) and a sunken concrete vault that will house a transformer capable of a 1,200-amp electrical service--double the amount of a typical home its size.

Then they began to have a little fun.

Filling up the rooms--including two kitchens, game room, prayer chapel and screening chamber--has been a task that has kept the couple focused on the future. "We're not only rebuilding a home, we're redecorating and remodeling it," she said.

The couple has changed the original floor plan, adding such alterations for the children as a redesigned bathroom, a larger closet, a better view of the ocean and a trap door. "We're trying to give them things to look forward to," Jill said.

Like other fire victims, the Coccos have lost irreplaceable mementos, including photographs and baby books. From now on, they plan to store personal treasures in a fireproof safe, they said.

On their first day back home, now scheduled for December, the couple, married for 19 years, plan to spend the night with their children camped out in the master bedroom. It will be a way to symbolize what they have come through as a family.

"We've talked to the kids about their losses, and it's hard for them to relate when you say something like, 'They were only material things'--after all, it was their world," Jill said. "But when we say, 'We're all still here; we're all that really matters,' they respond."

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