I-TEAM: Sprinklers failed inspection at high-rise where fire injures 6

Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments had been told to have 'fire watch'

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter, Scott Johnson - Reporter, Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter, Ashley Harding - Reporter, Ethan Calloway - Anchor/reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A high-rise building on Jacksonville's Southside where a fire injured five residents and a firefighter early Monday failed a routine fire safety inspection in October, according to city documents.

Those documents, obtained by the I-TEAM, show the sprinkler system at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments on Philips Highway had not been maintained and was not working properly during an Oct. 24 inspection. 

High-rise fire

Building officials were given until Nov. 24 to fix the issue, but a reinspection on Nov. 30 indicated the sprinkler system and fire pump were still not functioning, according to the documents.

The fire marshal sent an email to the building's business representative on Dec. 1, explaining that, until the system was fixed, the building needed to either be evacuated or have a person on “fire watch” duty 24/7 in case of an emergency. 

According to the fire marshal, the “fire watch” person should be an employee with no other duties who could check the entire building once an hour for any signs of fire or smoke. 

Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department spokesman Tom Francis said no "fire watch" employee was on duty when the fire broke out Monday, and the fire panel that controls the smoke alarms in the high-rise was not in compliance. He said the sprinkler system did kick on during the fire.

The building is owned by Cambridge Management Inc., which is based in Tacoma, Washington.

In a statement sent to News4Jax, a spokeswoman said "It is management’s understanding that all fire sprinklers and smoke alarms worked as intended."

The statement also said:

Our hearts go out to our residents who have been affected by the fire at Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments.

At this time, we are conducting an internal investigation to ensure that fire safety protocols were followed and to identify any instances of non-compliance. We will fully accommodate the needs of the fire marshal and investigators throughout the investigation process.

We are grateful to the American Red Cross for the services their staff and volunteers are providing to our displaced residents. We look forward to serving our residents in any way possible until this matter is resolved and are working to restore their homes as quickly as possible.

Frantic 911 call indicates starting point

The 911 call from the fire is difficult to listen to but gives an idea of where the fire likely started.

LISTEN: 911 call from high-rise fire

911: Are you having breathing problems?
Caller: (having trouble breathing) I need AC.
911: You need AC?
Caller: Fire (breathing heavily) from AC. Air conditioner make fire. (having trouble breathing) Fire, fire, fire, fire. My apartment (is on) fire.

Later in the call, the caller said the fire was in the air conditioning unit, which was next to an apartment wall.

911: Did you see any flames?
Caller: What?
911: Are there any flames showing?
Caller: (breathing hard) I don't see any.
911: Make sure everyone is out of danger, OK?
Caller: OK.

The State Fire Marshal said the cause hasn't been determined but it appears to be accidental and to have started in the area near an air conditioning unit on the eighth floor.

JFRD: Fire injures 5 residents, 1 firefighter

The state fire marshal is investigating what may have caused the blaze at the 10-story, Section 8 apartment building that, according to Apartments.com, was built in 1978 and has 250 units.

After the fire ignited on Monday, hundreds of residents were evacuated from the building Monday, and JFRD took five people to area hospitals. None appeared to be critically hurt, fire officials said.

The fire marshal said none of the injuries were directly from the fire but rather from smoke inhalation and pre-existing medical conditions.

A firefighter was also injured, but those injuries are also believed not to be severe.

Fire crews were called about 3:30 a.m. when flames were seen shooting from a window on the eighth floor of the apartment building, which is between I-95 and Philips Highway, just north of Emerson Street. A second alert and a third alert were called to bring additional resources to help the residents evacuate and to knock down the fire.

Buses with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority were brought in to help the evacuated residents, who are all senior citizens.

The American Red Cross arrived around 5 a.m. and established a temporary shelter in Building F of the neighboring mall for the more than 250 residents displaced by the fire. At the height of its use, 115 people took advantage of the shelter, firefighters said.

The Red Cross also set up a shelter at Faith United Methodist Church, about 1 mile from the complex, to give those with no place to go a warm place to stay. More than 100 residents are staying there, but it's unclear for how long.

The church gym was filled with cots for residents, many of whom have found themselves without clean clothing, medicines and much more. 

"It's like a dream or something," said Anna Stevenson, who lives on the eighth floor. "This is so unbelievably devastating. There's no words. It's just so awful. Painful."

The American Red Cross said the greatest need is medication, as many lost critical medicines and medical supplies. Volunteers were scrambling to contact pharmacies and insurance companies to get residents what they need.

"I wish I could just snap my fingers and say, 'OK, there you go," said Holly Woods, an American Red Cross volunteer.

Francis said that while the fire had been put out, the hallways of the high-rise were filled with smoke and the sprinkler system caused water damage, so recovery efforts will take some time.

High-rise fire

With Christmas around the corner, residents are hoping to get home as soon as possible.

Bernice Kendrick said it’s surprising that more people weren’t hurt.

"The building was a disaster. It was really a disaster, full of water. You couldn’t get out," Kendrick said. "You had to go down the stairs. I had to tote my buggy down the stairs -- three flights of stairs -- and that’s not good for me. I’m 67 years old, and I’m not able to do that."

Veteran James Harrison, who lives on the sixth floor, said the stairs were slippery and everything was dark.

"Visualize taking a full bath tub and just throwing it down the stairway about 10 times. There was water everywhere," Harrison said.

He said his time in the military taught him the importance of organization.

"I did grab my medical supplies," Harrison said. "Prior planning. I have a note on my kitchen and my bathroom and the bedroom that says 'Emergency supplies. Grab them.' So I have them ready, and I’m ready to grab, grab, grab."

Harrison said many residents didn’t have time to grab their belongings, and he’s praying they can all return to their apartments as soon as possible. 

Kendrick said she's upset because she no longer feels safe in her own home. She was one of several residents who said they never heard a fire alarm on Monday.

Some residents, however, said they did hear the alarm.

"There was no alarm. There was no sprinkler system, and we were taken by surprise," said George Prieto, who lives on the seventh floor. "A lot of people suffered because of this, because the system did not work properly."

People staying at the shelter at Faith United Methodist Church were told Monday night that they may be able to go back home on Thursday.

Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.