Aug. 20--EASTHAM -- The charred exposed beams, the pile of melted wet suits, the curled, burned edges of an American flag still flapping off the back deck.
That's what Dianne and Dennis O'Neill stare at every day. Not only did the O'Neills lose their home in a March 18 fire, they lost their 33-year-old daughter, Shannon.
And five months later, with no insurance payment from the Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriting Association (FAIR Plan), they are forced to live in a donated trailer next to their burned-out house.
"That's her bedroom right there," said Dianne, 60, pointing out the trailer's back window toward blackened rafters.
"We're not allowed to touch anything," said Dennis, 63, a retired Nauset Regional Middle School teacher. "It's still an ongoing investigation."
It's this investigation that is holding up the insurance payment.
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan ruled the cause arson and issued a carefully worded public statement shortly after the fire. His office has nothing new to add to that early statement, spokeswoman Jennifer Mieth said.
"Investigators believe they know who set the fire and that the public is not at risk," Coan said in a March press release.
The state police are awaiting a final report from the fire marshal's office before they close their investigation, Cape and Islands First Assistant District Attorney Michael Trudeau said.
The state fire marshal's initial investigation found that Shannon was responsible for the fire, said Jeni Landers of Wynn & Wynn, the attorney for the O'Neills. "That's a tough pill for the O'Neills to swallow."
The O'Neills don't believe their daughter set the fire. In fact, they think she was murdered, Dianne O'Neill said.
But in terms of receiving payment from their insurance company, it's not what they think that matters.
The question is what Shannon was thinking on the day of the blaze.
If a household member intentionally sets a fire to destroy a home, the terms of an insurance policy may be violated and the policyholder may not be entitled to a settlement, Landers said.
"In this case, it's all about intent," Landers said. "If the fire marshal believes she set the fire, what was her intent? If indeed Shannon is responsible for the fire, we certainly don't believe she had any intent to defraud the insurance company or obtain insurance proceeds for her parents."
The insurance company is conducting an investigation of its own to determine if the terms of the policy were violated, Landers said. As part of that investigation, the FAIR Plan is in the process of obtaining confidential records related to Shannon O'Neill.
"The insurance company, we believe, has exceeded the reasonable length of time for an investigation based on the facts of this case," Landers said. "We are asking the FAIR Plan to say enough is enough, conclude that there was no intent to cause property damage or to defraud the insurance company, and allow the O'Neills some closure on this terrible tragedy."
William Walsh, vice president of claims for the Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriting Association, could not give an average length of time for an investigation to be completed. And he wouldn't speak specifically about this case.
"Typically, if there is no policy violation, they will be paid," Walsh said. "The time frame is based on the investigation and each situation is different. I cannot even say there is a guideline or an average. There is no norm. Each case is so fact-driven and specific to that case."
Meanwhile, every day is another waiting game, a living nightmare for the O'Neills.
Their neighbor kindly gave them a camping trailer and friends helped them hook up plumbing and electricity.
They have a roof over their heads, but the mosquitoes get through the screens. When it rains, the acrid smell cannot be avoided.
They don't go out much because people begin to cry when they see them, Dianne said. Or they ask the worst question: "Are you OK?"
"What can we say to that?" Dennis asked.
They worry about the warm days turning chilly.
"This shouldn't happen to anyone," Dianne said. "When you pay your bills and have trust in the company, this shouldn't be happening."
The O'Neills lived at their 4 Gimlet Way home for 35 years. They have been married since 1976. They raised Shannon and her two younger brothers, Tim and Terry, in Eastham.
"I lost everything," Dennis said. "But most important, I lost my daughter, my firstborn, my only girl."
(c)2012 the Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, Mass.)
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