By Ted Waddell
SWAN LAKE March 25, 2005 In a new twist of an old tale, Joanne and Kip Gerow proved to be their dogs' best friends.
While the Gerows were sitting down in their kitchen, Kip looked out their window and saw smoke starting to pour out of the barn Joanne uses for her prized Bernese mountain dogs.
As her husband rushed out the door of their home on Briscoe Road, a barefoot Joanne followed him out to the barn, running across the snow to save the dogs from a blazing death on Saturday, March 12, around 5:30 in the afternoon.
"The hay was on fire, and Kip took off his jacket and tried putting it out by beating it with his coat, but that only made sparks blow up and start more fires," she said.
Once Kip Gerow figured out they were in real trouble, he yelled to his wife, "Get the dogs out!" but Joanne said she was concerned about two males named Thunder and Bogart getting into a fight.
"When my husband told me it was better for them to fight than be dead, I got a perception of what was really going on," she recalled of a three-minute span of time in which she almost saw her world dissolve in a wall of flames.
So she managed to get Thunder into a nearby paddock and Bogart contained in her husband's 1982 prized offroad Jeep in the backyard.
"That barn and my animals have been my life for almost 18 years," said Joanne Gerow.
In addition to breeding pedigreed Bernese mountain show dogs at the Gerows Indian Hill Farm, she boards horses.
As their parents raced off to battle the fire, the Gerows two sons, aged 9 and 17, stayed put on the porch as ordered as their 10-year-old daughter Tennessee called the 911 emergency control center.
"That was an awful lot of responsibility for a ten-year-old," said Joanne Gerow, who estimated that the local fire department was on scene within about ten minutes.
In addition to White Sulphur Springs, the following volunteer fire departments responded to the scene: Kauneonga Lake, Protection Hose Company #1 of Jeffersonville, Swan Lake and Youngsville. Liberty Ambulance Corps also responded. Liberty Fire Department was on standby.
As word spread among the Bernese mountain dog community, lovers of the breed responded from all over the country and around the world.
When Dawn Gabig, a breeder in Kansas City, Kansas, started getting e-mails about the Gerows plight, she contacted Monticello Farm, Home & Garden, and the folks who run the store set up a relief fund for donations to aid the Gerows and their beloved dogs.
A day later, calls started coming in from all across the United States and such far-flung lands as Mexico, New Zealand and Australia.
"People have been incredibly generous and are just thankful that none of the dogs were hurt," said Kathy Burke of Monticello Farm, Home & Garden.
Just days after the barn blaze, Kip Gerow and his friend Tom Shepish were hard at work leveling what remained of the barn.
While her husband cleaned up the debris, Joanne dealt with an insurance adjuster and was outraged when she got a call from a scam artist hoping to cash in on their disaster.
"Our insurance adjuster was professional and compassionate, and he treated us well," said Joanne Gerow.
But hours after the fire, she got a call from someone purporting to be a private adjuster from Newburgh, offering to "protect us from our insurance company for a percentage of the settlement."
According to Ed Sykes, owner of Mike Preis Insurance of Callicoon, while at times public (private) adjusters have their place, "I counsel my customers to be careful of these guys. . . . They don't want the hard work, they want the easy ones.
"It can be a bit of a scam," said Sykes, although he noted that in a complicated case, "they can be worth every penny."
In 30-some years in the business, Sykes only asked for the help of a public adjuster once but was turned down because the adjuster didn't want to take on a $2,500 claim.
"These are guys who have scanners, and they show up seeing dollar signs," said Sykes, adding that public adjusters typically charge folks 10-15 percent of the settlement.
The truth is, the customer would probably have received it anyway now it's less 10-15 percent.
"They seem to call when youre really devastated and want you to sign on the dotted line right now," said Sykes, noting that he's had public adjusters "offer me kickbacks."
"When you have a loss, you're traumatized financially and emotionally," said Sykes. "It's the worst possible time for you to be making those decisions, and that's when they call."
Joanne Gerow said that for several hours after getting the call from what appeared to be a public insurance adjuster, she was in a state of panic.
"That's a slimy b-----d to do that to me at this time," she said.
But for Joanne Gerow, Mom is always right.
"Ever since I was a little girl, she always told me that out of negatives come positives."
During the fire, firefighters saw her adopted cat run back into the burning barn, but after it was out, the cat resurfaced, none the worse for wear and the unnamed kitty now had a name: Hope.
"My neighbors were just incredible," said Gerow. "Gene Scheiman came over and took the boys, and Jackie Negron helped me with the dogs."
A few days after the blaze, Joanne Gerow stood among the piles of wreckage looking at a few precious memories, singed and blackened by the blaze, but still treasured parts of her life.
An antique copper weather vane given to her by her father Joe Lionetti and brothers Robert and Joseph is melted and twisted now, but she hopes to make it into something someday.
Standing next to a small array of salvaged pieces of bits and saddle horns laying in the melting snow by the charred skeleton of her barn, she mused, "It's so strange to be looking at 20 years of my life just laying here in a rubble pile."