JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Federal regulators opened investigations into a 2019 explosion of a government subsided apartment complex in Jacksonville that sent seven people to the hospital, according to state fire investigators and the attorney for one of the families injured. The status of those cases are unclear.
Both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation had federal regulatory cases open, according to the press secretary for the Florida Division of Investigative and Forensic Services.
The HUD Office of Inspector General wrote in an email Tuesday, per policy, the agency cannot confirm or deny ongoing investigations.
State investigators said a Jacksonville family reported the smell of gas in their Calloway Cove apartment four times leading up to a gas explosion in their unit. Five members of the family were hospitalized.
The youngest victim was just two years old. The toddler was burned on 40% of her body. Her older brother, 11, and older sister, 8, both sustained burns on most of their bodies.
Their mother Danielle Ethridge, 30, sustained the most severe injuries in the 2019 fire. Investigators reported burns on more than 80% of her body. Ethridge was in the hospital for more than a year, according to her attorney, part of which was spent in a medically induced coma. Court documents show one of Ethridge’s medical bills amounted to more than $1.8 million after insurance adjustments.
Witnesses told state investigators Ethridge would not leave the apartment immediately following the fire because she was looking for her other children.
“Her primary memory is that she was trying to save her kids,” said Ethridge’s attorney J. Ryan Will. “She remembers that there was a loud explosion. She remembers a lot of pain from the fire. She was on fire.”
The Ethridge family told investigators they reported the smell of gas more than four times and both times maintenance workers came to inspect the smell of gas there was no follow-up to address the issue, according to the state report.
Investigators determined the family’s apartment “did have natural gas within the living space, outside its proper piping” when the explosion happened. The investigator determined the resulting vapor explosion caused a rapid fire throughout the living space, but investigators determined the fire was ultimately accidental.
In November, Ethridge filed a lawsuit against the management company, Millennia Housing Management, Ltd, and the owners of the government-subsidized housing, Millennia Jacksonville FL TC LP for negligence.
In the lawsuit, attorneys say the family was given “no warning” of the gas leak from a properly installed gas detection device and had no access to a properly mounted and maintained fire extinguisher. Attorneys also allege the owner and manager of the property failed to replace dangerous and defective gas appliances and fuel gas systems or warn families of the dangerous condition at Calloway Cove Apartments.
“From our vantage point, the explosion clearly occurred as a result of someone’s negligence,” said Will. “There are a couple companies here that were both owners and the maintenance personnel involved with different buildings.”
Gas company TECO Energy told News4Jax the company was called to investigate the smell of gas months before the fire in April 2019.
“We investigated all of them, and any leaks were reported to the facility’s management team,” the spokesperson for TECO gas wrote in an email July 2019.
Following the fire, TECO gas reported it cut off gas service to the building impacted by the fire at Calloway Cove Apartment complex. HUD reported 28 families were evacuated from the complex after the fire because safety violations were discovered.
HUD spokesperson Gloria Shanahan said in an email Tuesday since the explosion the complex has undergone renovations.
We reached out to Millennia Companies and a spokesperson said as a matter of policy, the company is unable to comment on matters of litigation.