JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – State investigators say a Jacksonville family reported the smell of gas in their government-subsidized apartment four times leading up to a gas explosion in their unit in 2019. Seven people were sent to the hospital. Five were from the same family. The youngest victim was just two years old.
Danielle Ethridge, 30, sustained the worst injuries. Investigators reported burns on more than 80% of her body. Three of her children were hospitalized with burns on most of their bodies.
Witnesses told investigators with the Florida Division of Investigative and Forensic Services that Ethridge would not leave the apartment 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.”
State investigators ruled the fire accidental but reported the family made at least four complaints in-person to the apartment complex management about the smell of gas within their apartment. Ethridge’s husband told investigators both times maintenance workers came to inspect but there was no follow-up to address the issue.
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 in July 2019.
Following the fire, TECO gas reported it cut off gas service to the building impacted by the fire at the Calloway Cove Apartment complex. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported 28 families were evacuated from the complex after the fire because safety violations were discovered.
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 in Northwest Jacksonville.
“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.”
Will says Ethridge spent nearly a year in the hospital undergoing surgeries. 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.
Although state investigators have closed their investigation, the report states a federal regulatory case is still open. Attorneys for Ethridge say the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development along with other agencies are actively investigating the fire.
News4Jax reached out to Millennia Companies and a spokesperson said as a matter of policy, the company is unable to comment on matters of litigation.