Union Street Fire Raises Serious Code Questions

Union Street Fire Raises Serious Code Questions

Fire Ruled As Accidental

Case closed.

"Based upon witness statements, scene examination by fire investigators, and the elimination of all other probable causes of this fire, this case has been classified as an accidental fire caused by an unattended candle ... This case is closed."

With that terse summation, dated Feb. 19, the four alarm fire of Feb. 11, 2002, at 203 S. Union St., which closed down an Old Town commercial enterprize, has been archived. But the aftermath and blame assessment still smolders, at least with one of the building tenants.

A 33-page report by the Fire Marshall's Office, released this past Monday, spreads that blame between an unattended candle and the fact that the building fire alarm was inoperative. It is the latter that triggered a secondary investigation and has the building's prime tenant crying foul.

Sarah Savage, co-owner with her husband of Utica, a gift shop specializing in unusual American handmade items, located on the first floor of the building, wants to know why was the alarm not working and what does the city intend to do about it?

According to a report prepared by Deputy Fire Marshall Robert Rodriquez, lead investigator on the scene, "The building fire alarm system was comprised of manual pull stations and ceiling smoke detectors located on all three floors." It had a small annunciator for each zone and device.

"The panel was not connected to an alarm notification device. Fire alarm bells were located on each floor and the fire alarm is considered a local alarm system. Plans found on the top of the alarm breaker panel showed it was installed in 1975," Rodriquez wrote.

He further explained, "An investigation of the fire alarm panel determined that the power supply had been turned off at the alarm breaker panel, concealed behind a sheet of one inch thick plywood attached to the frame of the electrical closet. Accessibility to the breaker panel was partially obstructed by the plywood panel."

ON APRIL 2, Rodriquez submitted a secondary investigation to the city's Director of Code Enforcement, Arthur Dahlberg, and Chief Fire Marshall, Mike Connor, for further review and determination of any further action that may be required. It made eight points:

* The fire alarm system ... was inoperative at the time.

* The alarm was not connected to a notification device. The alarm was not required to notify an alarm company based upon the date the system was installed - 1975.

* The system was found to be inoperative on July 6, 2001. It was repaired but not completely tested to insure full operation.

* The building owners and facility manager stated that there was no maintenance or testing program for the alarm system.

* There were no other fire department incidents at that address from May 2001 to the date of the fire.

* There were no fire test notifications to the department from May 2001 to the date of the fire.

* Fire inspection records from Fire Station 201 revealed that no fire inspections had been conducted for 203 S. Union St.

* Pre-Emergency Analysis records for the 200 block of South Union Street revealed that there was no such analysis conducted for that address.

FOLLOWING THIS secondary investigation, the conclusion was the same. Rodriquez wrote on April 25, "On this date Director Dahlberg and Chief Fire Marshall Connor concluded their review of this case and determined no further action will be taken in this incident. As a result of this decision this case is officially closed as an accidental fire."

But, in response to the second part of Savage's question, what does the city intend to do about it, Dahlberg has included in the city's 2003 budget a request to establish a Fire System Retesting Program. "This will require the addition of four staff members. That's why it is in the budget request," he explained.

Dahlberg noted that as a result of the fire, "The building has been declared unfit and must be brought up to code during the renovation process." He also said, "Future use of the building will be limited to retail and commercial only. No residential occupancy will be permitted."

It was in the second floor residential area that the fire started due to an unattended candle that had been left burning by one of the occupants, according to the report. Deputy Fire Marshall Richard Sisler, stated in his report, "He (one of the occupants of the second floor apartment) stated that he did leave the candle burning when he left for work and the candle was burning the entire night before."

The report identifies the building ownership as ETM 3 General Partnership. The second floor apartment was occupied by the son and daughter of one of the partners, John Banderas of 220 N. Columbus St, the report states. The candle was in the rear bedroom, occupied by John Derek Banderas, investigative evidence revealed.

WHEN QUESTIONED by fire officials, both the partner, John Banderas, and Thomas Crowley, another partner, whose address the report lists as that of EMT 3, 1501 Duke St., #200, both denied any knowledge of an "ongoing maintenance program for the fire alarm."

Banderas stated, "The third floor was renovated last year and the firm alarm was tested during the renovation." Crowley said, "He did not know the status of the firm alarm system," according to the report.

William Kehoe, facilities manager for EMT 3, reported that during the renovation of the third floor a smoke detector was relocated to that area, according to Rodriquez. The electric company doing the renovations, Regional Electric, found the fire alarm to be inoperative, the report states.

Kehoe is reported to have told investigators, the system was repaired but only a smoke detector and pull station on the third floor and a pull station on the second floor were tested. He also said, he had not been contacted since June 2001, regarding any problems. Kehoe added that no trade permits were pulled for any of the third floor renovations, Rodriquez wrote in his report.

John Derek Banderas informed Rodriquez, "he lived in the apartment for two years." Also occupying the three bedroom residence was Bethany Banderas and Megan Fanning, the report states. None were in the apartment when the fire was discovered.

IN ADDITION TO UTICA and the apartment occupants, other tenants of 203 S. Union St. routed by the blaze, included Pamela McRae, who has an art studio on the third floor front and Harry Graef, an architect, who occupies the rear portion of the top floor. McRae shares her space with a photographer and manicurist.

Since 203 S. Union shares a common wall with 205 S. Union, that building was also evacuated. Christopher Foley, owner of Old Town Editions, a fine art print shop, with three employees, has been operating out of the Art League across Union St. since the fire.

"I hope to get back into my building within the next several weeks," Foley said. He was forced from his offices that morning by the overwhelming smell of smoke, the report states.

Foley's re-entry time estimate is a long way from what is forecast for the occupants of 203 S. Union. When asked when his tenants might be able to return, Crowley stated he hoped it would be not later than the end of this year.

"There are so many pieces to the puzzle that we have to put together. We're not sure when the building will be ready for re-occupancy. We have to gut it and start over," he emphasized.

That does not please Savage. Originally, she had expressed the hope that she would be able to open in three or four months. Although there was only minor smoke damage to Utica, the water damage was extensive throughout the premises. "The rear of the store had a step down area, which was approximately one foot under water," Rodriguez emphasized in his report.

"If I can't open for the Christmas season it will be a disaster," she exclaimed after hearing of the requirement to bring the building up to code. The ultimate time frame rests with EMT 3's ability to complete "the puzzle," as Crowley termed it.