Ismet Yazkurt poses for a portrait in front of Sunnyview Transmissions. He lost everything in a storage unit fire on May 3, 2021. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Two weeks ago, Ismet Yazkurt was sleeping in his minivan in Salem, which he’s lived in for about a year, when he was awoken by a call from a friend. His friend wouldn’t say why he had called, but insisted Yazkurt come into his car insurance sales office. Yazkurt recalled how he was shaking as he walked in.

There, his friend turned on the TV. On the news was footage of Airport Self Storage on Turner Road. Several units had caught fire and smoke billowed into the sky.

“Is it mine?” he wondered.

He drove to the storage facility to see if all his possessions, $25,000 in total, had burned in the blaze.

His was one of dozens of units burned in the May 3 fire, which caused more than $1 million in damage. A Salem man was charged with igniting the blaze with a flare.

Dustin Erdman, office manager at Airport Safe Storage, said he’s had to call 167 tenants who’ve lost their belongings in the fire.

He said there was anger, sadness and a lot of tears.

“It’s heartbreaking situation,” Erdman said. “Things that were stored in there that can’t ever be replaced.”

He said each tenant signs a lease and is offered insurance. Those who don’t want insurance have to sign an opt-out form. He also said the lease says items that cost more than $10,000 shouldn’t be stored at the facility without permission from the landlord.

Erdman said fortunately many of the tenants had insurance or will be reimbursed through their homeowners or renters insurance depending on their coverage.

“We’re not a heartless corporation turning people away. It’s been a very trying situation,” he said, adding that the facility has been a victim in all this, too.

Erdman cautioned that people shouldn’t store sentimental items or important documents like birth certificates or high school diplomas in storage units.

Yazkurt didn’t insure his unit, thinking a storage facility would be the safest place to put his belongings. Plus, he had never heard of a storage unit catching fire.

“It never even crossed my mind it’s going to burn. Everything is burned, all I have left,” he said.

He said he was a longtime tenant at a mobile home park off Lancaster Drive, but took a buyout to vacate the property when a new owner took over and raised rent prices. Since then, he said he’s been houseless, sleeping in his minivan and showering at friend’s houses. He moved all his belongings into the storage unit 11 months ago. 

The household items he can replace, he said, but he also lost all of his specialty tools from decades repairing furniture for a living.

Repairing furniture was Yazkurt’s family business while growing up in Turkey. He started out by sweeping the floors and later traveled to Germany, Switzerland and Canada after leaving the Turkish Army.

He joked that he came to America because he was in love with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.

Yazkurt declined to give his age, but said he wants to replace his tools so he can continue working. But without insurance, he likely won’t receive any reimbursement for his losses.

He’s had this feeling of despair before.

More than 30 years ago while living in Grants Pass, he said he woke up one day with his wife and two toddler-aged children gone, leaving him penniless. Yazkurt said he told his pastor he was going to drive to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump off. His pastor told him not to and that he would just have to start all over again.

“I start all over again. I made a good living all those years after that and now this happened. Now the fire came, now I lost my house, now I am on sidewalk,” he said.

Months ago, Yazkurt walked into Sunnyview Transmissions to repair his minivan where he befriended its owner Tony Khalaf. 

Khalaf said Yazkurt reminds him of his father. Yazkurt jokes that Khalaf has become his therapist. Now, Khalaf said he plans to make a Gofundme for Yazkurt.

“I feel so helpless,” Yazkurt said. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] 

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