State agency report reveals details of fatal Wells fire

Though fire drill records for the Wells Group Home indicated all nine developmentally disabled resid

Though fire drill records for the Wells Group Home indicated all nine developmentally disabled residents could be evacuated in eight minutes or less, the staffers were able to evacuate only four residents — and only partially — in that time frame, the investigating agency reported.

Arriving Wells firefighters did the actual removal of the first four residents and had broken off attempts to reach the other five as the situation became too dangerous. Four of the five later died.

The fire drill records are a focus of attention since the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities said June 12 that a week earlier it had placed two group home staffers on administrative leave after it discovered the records might have been fabricated. Two other staffers — those on duty the night of March 21 — were placed on leave following the fire, a step that OMRDD officials said is routine during an investigation.

The report from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, released June 10, follows the chain of events the morning of the fire and reveals that three of the five residents left behind when evacuation efforts ceased were still alive after the blaze was brought under control. They were airlifted but two died en route to hospitals. The third survived, the report said.

Fire Prevention and Control has also announced the fire was caused by “human action” and that state police are conducting a criminal investigation. A state police official declined comment, referring a reporter to OMRDD.

OMRDD acknowledged possible problems with the fire drill records after the New York Civil Liberties Union pointed to the fire drill records while declaring: “The state needs to immediately find out why these fire drill reports failed to raise any red flags.” The NYCLU monitored five of the group home residents as part of a 1972 court case that led to the closing of their former residence, the state’s Willowbrook Institution on Staten Island.

Noting that fire drill records at the home were supposed to document that residents could be evacuated in eight minutes or less under any circumstances, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman asked last week: “How is it possible that these nine severely disabled people would be able to be evacuated in the middle of the night by only two people … why didn’t this claim ring a giant alarm?”

The Fire Prevention and Control report suggests that the home was shorthanded for such an evacuation.

When the assistant fire chief arrived about eight minutes after the 5:25 a.m. alarm, he opened the main door to find four residents collected in the home’s mud room.

“There were no residents outside the structure or assembled at the designated safe area … It was only with the assistant chief’s help that the first residents were removed from the structure,” the report said.

The report details how the two staffers made repeated trips from bedrooms to the mud room, one suffering shoulder injuries from “physically dragging some of the remaining residents from their rooms,” the investigation found.

As smoke became too thick for emergency lights to penetrate, Wells fire officials ordered the rescue operation to stop and decided not to attack the fire from inside, the report said.

Once the fire was knocked down, the grim state of the other residents was revealed.

As a front-end loader removed the portico from the building, one victim was found in that area, still alive. While that victim was being addressed, a state trooper photographing through a bedroom window discovered the second survivor. A third resident still alive at that juncture was discovered when firefighters noticed movement under debris near the mudroom, the report said.

The fire started on the enclosed back porch where, the report said, “immediate fuel [was] available from items located on the porch as well as the exterior of the structure.” The fire climbed the wall and fed on the vinyl material covering the porch ceiling before entering the attic through the soffit and consuming the attic, the report said.

While Fire Prevention and Control found the year-old building in compliance with codes, it noted that original plans called for aluminum soffits and a porch ceiling of exterior-grade gypsum board instead of vinyl. “Had these components been constructed using the more fire-resistive materials, the fire would have been slowed in its spread into the attic,” the report concluded. The sprinkler system functioned as designed, the report said, but sprinklers were not required for the attic.

A Hamilton County grand jury continues its probe. OMRDD has commissioned a panel of experts to examine the operations and practices and make recommendations.

Categories: Schenectady County

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