Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eight months later, cause of fire that killed four in NY group home still unknown

From the Adirondack Daily Enterprise:

WELLS, N.Y. - It's been eight months since a fire at the Riverview group home destroyed a state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities facility, killed four of the home's nine residents and displaced the others.

But no one knows quite what happened. Until a Hamilton County grand jury convened to investigate the fire completes its work, state police will not release a cause and origin report. The report will detail what happened in the early morning hours of March 21 to cause the group home (pictured), which had been built in May 2008, to burn to the ground.

The grand jury started meeting Nov. 16 and could complete its work by the end of the week, according to Hamilton County District Attorney Confidential Secretary Carrie O'Neill. Until then, the public only has knowledge of details released in a June state Office of Fire Prevention and Control report.

That report determined the fire was caused by "human action," but it is unclear what sort of human action led to the fire. The June report said some fire drill records at the group home were found to have been falsified, and it placed two staff members on leave as a result of those findings.

The report also said the building's fire system was not up to code, and the two employees on scene during the fire attempted to evacuate residents via the main exit, instead of from a closer exit located on the side of the building.

But the fire's cause remains unknown. It's also a mystery to Louise Beach, a Malone resident who, along with her husband Allen, raised Cory Desotelle - one of the four people killed in the blaze.

Beach said the state has not been in touch with her about anything regarding the fire. All she knows, she said, is what she reads in the paper - which means she is as much in the dark about what "human action" means as anyone is.

"We would like to know," Beach said last Thursday.

Meanwhile, the charred building was demolished and completely removed from the site in September. Grass has been planted on the site where the home formerly stood off state Route 30.

Wells town Supervisor Brian Towers said workers completed the job within 48 hours. It had remained in its burnt state for six months after the fire, virtually untouched, after state officials completed their on-site investigation.

OMRDD spokeswoman Nicole Weinstein said the state has no plans for the site.

"They had an investment in this piece of property, and they simply walked away from it," Towers said. "From a taxpayer point of view, it's very discouraging."

He noted the state had spent time bringing water and sewer to the site, and said it was strange to see the site abandoned so soon.

Town resident Paul Venier said he also is saddened by the building's disappearance.

"It's a shame to drive by and see it not there," he said. "I guess they feel that it shouldn't be rebuilt because of what happened. But it's a nice location."

Towers said, however, that people in the town are beginning to move on.

"Most of the people in the community are just moving forward with their lives," he said. "It's an unfortunate incident, and at this point, it's history, and we will move forward with our lives."

OMRDD has attempted to tighten its fire drill regulations since the fire, and the agency issued a memo in June reminding its employees to not smoke near buildings. It was unclear whether that memo was related to the fire's cause.

The agency established a fire safety committee made up of several fire safety experts and created a new division to address its safety and security operations.

Weinstein said the five displaced residents are now living in other group homes in the community.

Until the final cause and origin report comes out, however, the fire's cause will remain unclear. That often leads people to speculate, but Venier did not do that.

"I don't know who to blame," he said. "I don't think any one person or people can be blamed for it. It was a combination of tragic events."