JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A major natural gas scare at the troubled Eureka Gardens apartment complex late Tuesday night stunned the fire marshal.
Gas filled the homes of hundreds of families and children, causing panic and illness, and the fire marshal blamed the property management and its hired maintenance crews.
Residents were alerted by property management Tuesday that the gas lines throughout the complex needed repairs and would likely be turned off until late night or early morning.
A maintenance crew brought in from Alabama by the property management, BSR Trust based out of Montgomery, Alabama, shut off the gas lines to all the units in the Eureka Gardens complex at the same time. Shutting off the gas extinguishes the pilot lights in the stoves and water heaters in the units, state fire marshals said.
After making repairs, the maintenance crew turned on the gas again late at night in waves to sections of the complex, but the pilot lights needed to be individually re-lit in all the units.
According to state fire marshals, the gas lines in the units are connected, therefore if one unit's pilot is re-lit gas can then flow into the other connected units.
Residents were asleep, others were gone, and crews did not have keys on hand to get into units immediately to warn tenants or fix the problem.
They had to scramble to the office as residents awoke feeling the effects of the gas and began calling 911 because they were struggling to breathe.
"People started getting the gas smell," said Tracy Grant, president of the Eureka Gardens Tenant Association. "Some people never had that issue ever as long as they were in the apartments, but they were getting sick, nauseous, because they were smelling gas."
Maintenance crews shut off the gas again to all 400 units, and the fire marshal, who had been called to the complex along with Hazmat, made the crew get keys for the units before restoring gas.
Grant said the fire marshal and Hazmat were at the complex until after midnight and the maintenance crew was there until 2 a.m. She said some residents were still without gas Wednesday afternoon.
A source within the fire marshal's office said what happened Tuesday night was "vindictive" and an "example of passive aggressive behavior against these tenants."
The source said not giving tenants a fair timeline for repairs and awakening people at night, including young children who had school the next day, was wrong and dangerous.
These are the same tenants who reported their deplorable living conditions to News4Jax and city officials two months ago after the complex received a passing Department of Housing and Urban Development score. HUD has since voided that score and inspected all 400 units at the complex last week.
One of the changes HUD said it wants to see at the complex is a restructuring of the property management group, which was hired by property owner the Rev. Richard Hamlet with Global Ministries Foundation.
The city also conducted a two-day code inspection sweep at the complex that uncovered hundreds of violations. That sweep led to eight fire and gas violations sent to GMF to be fixed immediately.
HUD plans to meet Monday with the city to go over its inspection findings and a timeline for repairs. The property was built in 1968.
"We don't need any more, 'No worries, we'll fix it,'" Grant said. "We need to know what we need to do as residents."
Jacksonville Area Legal Aid will meet with Eureka Gardens tenants Thursday at Wayman Ministries across the street from the complex. JALA attorneys want to talk with the tenants about their housing, health issues and problems with management.
JALA has opened a systemic investigation into what's happening at the federally subsidized complex to see if the Fair Housing Act has been violated.