Jacksonville high-rise hadn't been inspected by HUD since 2014

Feds uncertain why 2017 inspection did not happen

By Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A Southside Jacksonville high-rise that caught fire earlier this week had not been inspected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since 2014, a department spokesman said.

The spokesman told News4Jax on Friday the last HUD inspection of Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments was done in February 2014, when the complex scored 93 out of 100 -- well above the passing score of 60. 

HUD said, because of that very high score, the complex that houses senior citizens was able to go three years without an inspection, which would have put the next inspection around February. 

READ: HUD inspection report from February 2014

The spokesman said it isn't clear exactly why a HUD inspection didn't take place this year, but said it may have been because the owner was getting ready to begin an extensive renovation project on the complex, and HUD would then conduct its inspection after the rehab was finished. 

Meanwhile, cleanup from Monday morning's fire that forced more than 250 residents to evacuate the senior living facility continued just one day after apartment management confirmed trace amounts of asbestos were found.

Asbestos is a mineral fiber typically found in older buildings that can become airborne and cause health problems, like mesothelioma and even lung cancer, if inhaled.

Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters, said he wasn't surprised it was found inside the complex, as asbestos is normally found in older buildings. 

Wyse said it's unlikely residents and firefighters were exposed to it.

"Just finding it in a building doesn't mean you’ve been exposed to it and you’re going to come down with some sort of horrible disease," he said. "Again, it’s in all sorts of old buildings and there’s never a problem with it."

Wyse said 70 to 80 firefighters responded to Monday morning's fire. Zoraida Mojica said one of them saved her life. 

"When I told him that, 'I can't breathe,' he takes off his mask and he gave it to me and he took me from the apartments all the way to the stairs," Mojica said. "I'd like to say thank you because he was so kind and helped me."

People dress in white suits and wearing masks could be seen on Friday, coming in and out of the Jacksonville Townhouse Apartments, which is on Philips Highway just north of Emerson Street. 

Cambridge Management, which manages the property, told News4Jax that crews are working aggressively to repair the fire damage, but also make sure there are no traces of asbestos before residents return.

With Christmas only days away, residents, such as Mojica, were eager to return home, but said they would rather wait until the complex is safe, than to return to unsafe conditions. 

Cambridge Management said it's putting all residents without a place to stay in a hotel until they can return, and it's trying to get them home as soon as possible. 

The HUD spokesman told News4Jax that if asbestos had been noticed during the inspection process, it definitely would have been factored in, but it's possible it was in the walls or someplace like that where it wouldn't be visible during an inspection. 

Asbestos will definitely be a part of the next inspection, the HUD spokesperson said. 

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