Sunday, March 29, 2009

Town supervisor says state never required to show group home building plans, which would have helped firefighters save disabled residents

From The Times-Union in Albany, N.Y.:

WELLS, N.Y. - A building inspector was told by the state to "butt out" after making inquiries in the months before the construction of a group home that caught fire and killed four disabled residents, Town Supervisor Brian Towers said.

March 29, Towers is questioning the state's decision to refuse an inspection and believes the tragedy at the Riverview group home will force state officials to involve municipalities in the building process.

The state "designed and installed everything" and wasn't required to get a building permit from the town, Towers said last week after an emotional service honoring the fire victims and rescue workers in this close-knit Adirondack town.

"We had almost zero to do with (the inspections)," he added. "We thought it was unusual, and my building inspector tried to work with the state but was told in a frank and polite way to butt out and it's not your business."

Also, the town and county never received floor plans or blueprints for the facility, which would have been helpful to firefighters and rescuers, Towers said.

The investigation into the cause of the March 21 fire, and whether a sprinkler system malfunctioned, is continuing. Consumer Advisory Board staff members were told that an electrical problem is the suspected cause of the fire. The building was less than a year old. State officials will not name the contractor.

Two overnight workers frantically tried to rescue nine helpless residents from the building. Two residents died inside the facility and two died on the way to the hospital. The survivors have been moved to a nearby facility.

According to documents obtained by the Times Union, the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities knew it would be "impractial" to evacuate all nine residents of the group home in an emergency, which is why sprinklers were installed.

Nicole Weinstein with the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities did not return messages left on her cell phone Friday. The workers involved in the rescue have not been permitted to speak to the media.

Gov. David Paterson said March 27 he is more than satisfied with the performance of the state agencies who responded to the fire or are taking part in the investigation.

Wells Building Inspector Gene Harrington said Friday a person she believes was a state project foreman told her the state didn't need a local building permit.

"They told us we had no jurisdiction and were not wanted down there," she added. With that, Harrington never returned to the site. The building opened in June with no floor plans on file with the town or county.

"It was just for us as a reassurance that the building was good to go, and I'm not saying it wasn't, but we want some involvement on the local level to make us comfortable with the building," Towers said Wednesday.

Towers, who also responded to the State Route 30 site in his role as a volunteer firefighter, said the blaze that roared through the home made it impossible for fire crews to save lives, even though they arrived on the scene three minutes after getting the 9-1-1 call.

Towers believes any documents showing the layout of state-owned buildings would be helpful to fire crews where split second decisions in an emergency can be the difference between life and death.

"That would have been handy for fire line officers to know the layout, and I think that will happen," he said. "You would have to know the layout to be more effective."

No blueprints or floor plans for Riverview are on file in Hamilton County. County Clerk Jane Zarecki on Wednesday showed a reporter only a map of the property she pulled from a manila envelope. She checked with the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors and also came up empty.

And Wells Fire Chief Bernie Moldt said the state never gave him any floor plans, nor did he ask for it. He said Friday, however, that he was in the process of obtaining the documents from the director of the two remaining homes on Buttermilk Hill Road and Algonquin Drive.

Asked why he didn't request it before now, Moldt said "the state homes have their own way of doing things and are controlled by their own people."

The early morning fire in this bucolic Adirondack town of 730 residents almost certainly will change the way the state does business in the future, Towers said.

"They will be going back procedurally over how emergency management people deal with and react to these facilities," he added. "This will affect more than just the community of Wells. It will affect every community that has an intermediate care facility from Plattsburgh to Long Island."

While the layout of the group home remained a mystery to Wells officials, the four fire victims were not. They and the workers who accompanied them were a common sight around this tiny town. Gloria Bonilla, Anthony Vitti Jr, Cory Desotelle and Theresa Williams attended local churches and regaled at Old Home Days, an annual celebration held the first weekend in August.

The Rev. Michael Terrell recounted their unique qualities during a memorial at Community Hall on Wednesday, punctuating his remarks by telling the crowd, "these were our brothers who lost their lives." Terrell also said the lives of the four surviving residents, Elaine, Blancha, Andrew and Raffi, have forever been "changed and disrupted."

The deaths of their housemates have shaken the region.

Jacob Brenan, 15, was staying with his friend James Hoffman, who lives adjacent to Riverview. By most accounts, James' father, Kenny, a volunteer firefighter in Wells, was the first on the scene after the call came in at 5:30 a.m. March 21. Hoffman has repeatedly declined comment. His family appeared overcome with grief during the memorial.

Jacob Brenan said he was awakened when Kenny Hoffman dashed downstairs and out the door toward Riverview that fateful morning. The boys rushed upstairs to the attic window. "There was a lot of smoke and the roof was engulfed in flames that were shooting about 15 feet in the air," he said, adding he could see two people trying to guide residents into a dark blue van. "I was scared for them and we were praying," he said.

Wells Councilwoman Roberta Chamberlain said Wednesday the governing body never had any safety issues with the group home and she had not discussed the incident with her colleagues.

Moldt said traumatized rescue personnel had debriefing sessions from a county stress team.

"Everyone is coming together as a group," he said.