Haven: After a fire, rebuilt house, rebuilt lives

Michelle and Tod Schuck's master bathroom. The Schucks had the house rebuilt from the ground up after fire destroyed it on April 21, 2012.
Michelle and Tod Schuck's master bathroom. The Schucks had the house rebuilt from the ground up after fire destroyed it on April 21, 2012. (CURT HUDSON / For The Inquirer)
Posted: June 01, 2014

For 13 years, Tod and Michelle Schuck couldn't have been happier living in Lumberton. The couple, who had spent 24 years in Maryland, relocated in 1999, after Tod Schuck, an engineer, took a job with Lockheed Martin.

They settled into a two-story, four-bedroom house, with pristine wooden floors and a lovely landscaped yard, which was only a year old and situated in a developing community. They grew to love South Jersey for its open space and the recreational opportunities it offered their two sons, now 29 and 20.

Among the Schucks' blessings was a warm and caring relationship with their neighbors.

Indeed, on April 21, 2012, one of those neighbors called Michelle Schuck, who was at an afternoon wedding with her husband in Willingboro, with crushing news: Their house was on fire.

"I just saw Michelle's face, and I knew something was terribly wrong," Tod Schuck says.

Michelle Schuck remembers leaving behind her purse and just running out the door.

"I had to get to Jeff. He was my baby," she says of the family's 13-year-old Rottweiler/beagle mix, who she feared was trapped inside.

Black ash was swirling everywhere when they reached their street. Michelle Schuck raced to the back of the house calling Jeff's name, hoping he was in the yard, until firefighters ushered her away.

As flames swallowed the structure, the couple watched from a barricade, while their neighbors poured out their generosity.

"Some of my neighbors handed us cash and gift cards right there on the spot," says Michelle Schuck, who works in administration for Standard Warehouse in Pennsauken.

Eight hours later, the blaze, which had started in the living room with a floor lamp's faulty cord, was finally extinguished. Unfortunately, Jeff, who was discovered in the master bathroom, had died.

Days later, as they assessed the devastation, the Schucks found their furniture and most of their personal belongings either charred or swamped with water.

A box containing baby pictures of their older son and vintage photos of Tod Schuck's ancestors was located, buried under debris in a bedroom closet. Also salvaged, but requiring restoration, were an antique RCA phonograph, a 19th-century German cradle passed down from Tod Schuck's relatives, and an Austrian cuckoo clock.

Eventually, the house was razed. The Schucks, who wanted to rebuild, soon faced the protracted and often confusing process of negotiating a fire claim. Their insurance company paid off their $200,000-plus mortgage, but subsequent installments were stymied for one reason or another, causing a delay in the construction.

So four months after the fire, and still without a permanent home, the couple took work leaves and moved to Kampot, Cambodia, about 80 miles southwest of Phnom Penh, to work in a hospital with Hope Worldwide, an international charity.

"This was a good time for us to help other people," Tod Schuck says.

When they returned to this country in early 2013, they began rebuilding their house - and their lives in South Jersey. They credit Jeff Onofrio and his colleagues at AnnieMac Home Mortgage in Mount Laurel, for granting them a loan based on the house's future value, which hurried the construction process along.

Michelle Schuck saw the fire's destruction as a chance to alter the original house's blueprint. The previous first floor had a front and back staircase. During construction, the couple decided to install only one staircase, thus creating an open profile where once there were walls.

The first floor now offers soaring ceilings, natural light, and extensive upgrades, such as a wrought-iron staircase, high-tech lighting, and maple flooring throughout. Architectural columns punctuate the space between the casual family room - with its flat-screen TV, tufted chairs, and coral-hued sofa - and the dining room, which is anchored by elaborate Italian furniture.

The kitchen boasts glazed, cream-colored Wellborn cabinets, stainless-steel Jenn-Air appliances, and an elegant 15-foot granite island. The backsplash has distinctive wavy tiles pieced together like a puzzle without using grout.

At Michelle Schuck's request, the laundry room was moved to the second floor, and the spacious master bedroom now has a sitting room. The en-suite bath, with walk-in closets and a water closet, has a 6-by-5-foot shower with multiple shower jets and heads.

Nearby, spiral stairs lead down to a first-floor spa, where a 9-by-15-foot indoor pool is located.

Almost two years to the day of the fire, the Schucks both 49, moved back home in April, just in time to celebrate Easter dinner with 20 guests.

"We still have rooms that need decorating," Michelle says. "But we're finally in, and we are really beginning to love it here."

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