Who knows when it began, but dirty water was bubbling up from the drain in the boiler room. Sometime around 11 p.m., Gaby and Nick returned home after a grueling day of work. They cautiously descended the stairs to the subbasement. Water was spreading everywhere. Gaby remembered, “I smelled it first. Then I saw the boxes storing important family papers sitting in water. I didn’t think. I took off my shoes and waded in. But the boxes were too heavy to move.”

She yelled at Nick to help. He refused, stiffly advising Gaby not to touch a thing (too late on that score) and to call the building manager. An exchange of criticisms began, rapidly followed by a few expletive-laden insults. In tears, Gaby dialed her mother. Nick retreated ...

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