Investigation: Protecting your important documents

Monroe, NC - MONROE, NC (WBTV) - It's been slightly more than one year since the Chudalski family lost just about everything.

"You never think it's going to happen to you and then the next thing you know you're standing in front of your house and watching it burn," said Mike Chudalski.

All of their important papers including their marriage license, passports, even their wedding pictures were gone.  They weren't stored in a fire-safe container.

"[We] lost all of our wedding photos, our marriage certificate. We can't even prove we're married," he said.

So many of us put those things in a file cabinet or desk drawer.  We wanted to know if know if it's really worth the money to but a fire safe or fire resistant box for protection.

The City of Monroe Fire Department was training firefighters with a controlled burn on a duplex in the city.  They allowed us to fill up a fire safe, fire resistant box, and file cabinet with various kinds of documents and other items.  Then firefighters placed those containers inside the home.  We watched as it burned to the ground.

"The small one-hour rated fire safe I thought it may make it .  The small briefcase we're looking for still I wasn't so sure about that," said Kevin Rigoli.  He's the fire marshall for the City of Monroe.

At its hottest, the fire burned anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 degrees. Each of the boxes are rated for a certain amount of time in which it can be subjected to such temperatures.

The first to come out of the fire -- the file cabinet. Rigoli says the cabinet isn't even rated to survive in fires, and the experiment proved it didn't. The photos stored inside of the cabinet weren't destroyed, but as soon as they were taken out of the cabinet, they lit up in flames.

Despite a 0-for-3 track record so far, a small fire safe box was hard to come across in stores. Once one was able to be located, it too was put to the test, proving it could withstand the flames. A CD locked inside of the safe still worked after it was pulled out of the fire and each item inside was in tact.

Now for the biggest mystery of the experiment -- the large fire safe. It was packed with items prior to being placed in the raging inferno, but when it was pulled out, the inside was empty.

The safe had not been properly locked before being placed into the fire, causing the items inside to fall out and burn in the fire.

However, what if it would have been tightly sealed?

"The heat warped the plastic, but there was no burning," said Rigoli. "What was inside would have made it."

The large fire safe cost around $100, while the smaller fire-proof boxes cost $20 to $30.

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