I-TEAM: Charges possible in Jacksonville high-rise fire

Fire Marshal issued safety warnings to Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Criminal charges are possible in the high-rise apartment fire that injured five residents and a Jacksonville firefighter this week.

Prosecutors could get involved if the State Fire Marshal decides there is cause to bring a case against the community's management, a State Attorney's Office spokesperson told the I-TEAM.

The fire broke out about 3:30 a.m. Monday at the Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments on Philips Highway near Emerson Street.

It forced more than 250 residents, mostly senior citizens, to evacuate, and they have not been able to return yet. Trace amounts of asbestos were also found in the complex during cleanup and that now must be dealt with, managers said.

RELATED: High-rise fire prompts I-TEAM check of other senior living facilities

The I-TEAM reported earlier this week that the State Fire Marshal issued numerous safety warnings to complex managers ahead of the fire, warnings that investigators said management repeatedly ignored.

Those warnings involved the fire pump and sprinkler system, which fire inspectors found were not in working order as recently as Nov. 30.

Firefighters said after the fire Monday that the sprinklers did come on, because they caused water damage. But victims and witnesses said they don't think all of the sprinklers and fire alarms were working properly.

A fire department spokesman told News4Jax that the fire panel controlling the alarms did not appear to be up to code.

Fire official sources told the I-TEAM that the city is lucky Monday's fire didn't end like the Ghost Ship fire in California or the London high-rise fire, which both resulted in dozens of fatalities.

Jacksonville attorney John Phillips said residents have already contacted his firm about civil damages.

He said what set off alarm bells for him was -- a “lack of alarm bells.”

“It's one of the largest atrocities I've seen in Jacksonville in awhile,” Phillips said.

According to inspection reports, the fire pump at the building was broken and had been for months. State law requires a property owner to alert fire officials if a fire pump is broken.

The State Fire Marshal told the I-TEAM that Cambridge Management, which operates Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments, did not notify the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department about the fire pump issues.

Fire investigators explained that a fire pump is critical for water pressure in the sprinkler system. 

The standard amount of pressure provided by a utility company is only enough to be effective on two to three stories of any home, office building or condo. A fire pump makes that pressure effective at higher levels.

A properly working pump will force the sprinklers to spray with high pressure to put out a fire. Without a working pump, however, the water sprays out only as a mist on higher floors, and that mist can be evaporated by the fire itself.

The I-TEAM also found evidence of more ignored warnings.

The fire marshal released a photo to the I-TEAM proving that the fire pump was discovered to be broken during a routine inspection Oct. 24.

Cambridge Management was given 30 days to comply.

They did not.

A record shows Cambridge Management told fire officials the pump would be repaired by Dec. 17, the day before the fire. But it wasn't.

A Dec. 1 email from the fire marshal to management ordered management to have employee on “fire watch” 24/7 until the fire pump was fixed or else evacuate the high-rise.

The fire marshal said Cambridge Management never responded to the demand, and the “fire watch” didn't happen.

“It's offensive. It's inappropriate,” Phillips said, adding that management, in his opinion, is both civilly and criminally responsible for the results of the fire.

“A fire is the worst health hazard somebody can deal with, because you have smoke inhalation or death by fire, and the skin -- once the skin is burned, you can't repair it,” Phillips said. “You can't take that lightly and put profits over people like that.”

Phillips said criminally, the State Attorney's Office could charge an individual who ignored warnings, possibly with culpable negligence, a misdemeanor, or perhaps even fraud, which is a felony.

News4Jax has requested comment from Cambridge Management employees at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments, but so far, they have declined.

In a statement posted to the apartment website, management wrote: "Ensuring the safety and comfort of our residents is our top priority."

The I-TEAM is ready at any time to sit down with Cambridge Management and hear their side of the allegations. 

The company manages properties all over the country, including 10 in Jacksonville. Six of those are Department of Housing and Urban Development properties, and four others are subsidized locally by the Jacksonville Housing Authority.

The I-TEAM has requested the latest HUD inspection reports for Cambridge Management's Jacksonville properties.

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