17 hospitalized after Texas high-rise fire

Anita Marie Woodson, age 75, Apt 709; Charlene Lowry, age 71, Apt 924; Ramon Villarreal, age 85, Apt 323; Molly Urban, age 75, Apt 302; Jose O. Gonzales, 73, and Karen Rae Betz, 74, lost their lives in this fire.

The fire occurred at the Wedgewood Apartments, an eleven-story building, at 6701 Blanco Road in Castle Hills, a suburb located north of San Antonio, Texas along Interstate 410. The fire occurred at around 6:00 am. According to the December 29, 2014 edition of the San Antonio Express News:

No sprinkler system was installed when the structure was built in 1965, according to Castle Hills City Manager Diane Pfeil. Rules now require such sprinklers but the building, home to about 350 people, was grandfathered, allowing it to keep operating without them.

"We're going to look at that now in light of the fact we've had fatalities," Pfeil said.

I was taught that our codes and standards reflect the level of safety expected by society. As such, it is no surprise when elected leaders express a desire to close the barn door after the horse has gone.

History is full of examples of how our leaders have reacted to tragedy and how our codes have been changed as a result. We often complain about this after-the-fact, reactive method of addressing a problem, but, like it or not, this is a way of getting things right. This is too late for the victims past, but maybe in time to prevent future losses.

Here are few examples of significant U.S. fires that have caused positive change in our codes and standards:

In December 1903, 601 persons, attending the matinee of the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, died in a fire when a stage light ignited scenery. The grand theatre had been recently constructed and had only been open for less than a month. It was our version of the Titanic. We learned that locked and hidden exits are a problem and that systems intended to protect audiences from fires in the stage area (proscenium curtains and heat vents) need to function properly.

In March 1911, 146 persons, mostly young female immigrants, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Building fire in New York City. Sixty-two lost their lives jumping or falling from the building. We learned (again) that exits need to be unobstructed and unlocked. We also learned that businesses have a responsibility for the safety of their workers.

In December 1942, 492 patrons, many of them celebrating the upset victory of Holy Cross over the more powerful Boston College football team, died in the Coconut Grove nightclub. We learned that revolving doors, exit doors swinging against egress, and highly combustible decorations and interior finish are not such a good thing. We also gained a great deal of knowledge on how to treat serious burn victims. Something that contributed to the saving the lives of many American service members in WWII.

In December 1946, 119 persons, many who leapt from the building, lost their lives at the Hotel Winecoff in Atlanta, Ga. We learned that a “fireproof” building is not necessarily fire safe. We also learned that highly combustible interior finish; a single exit stair, which was also an unprotected vertical opening; and openable transoms between guest rooms and corridors were not the best thing for fire safety.

In December 1958, 92 elementary school children and three nuns were killed at Our Lady of The Angels School, in Chicago, Ill. We learned the importance of prompt notification of occupants and the fire department, evacuation planning, and fire exit drills. We also learned that window must be designed to facilitate rescue.

In December 1961, 16 patients died in a hospital fire in Hartford, Connecticut. In November 1963, 63 residents, died in a nursing home in Fitcheville, Ohio. The federal government learned it was a good idea to require such facilities to comply with NFPA 101 The Life Safety Code in order to qualify for Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement.

In 1977, 167 persons, many of them who wanted to spend a night out being entertained by Jon Davidson, perished at the Beverly Hills Supper Club nightclub in Southgate, Ky. This fire is one example where no new lessons were learned.

In November 1980, 85 persons died at the MGM Hotel and Casino. We learned that maybe it is a good idea after all to begin to sprinkler existing high-rise buildings that serve as hotels, a lesson that was not learned in 1946.

In February 2003 101 persons, who were hoping to enjoy a night of music by Great White, died in the Station Nightclub, in West Warwick, R.I. We learned that great codes are nothing unless they are enforced. We also learned that, as advanced as our building and fire codes are, they can still contained flaws and can be improved.

A week later on February 26, 2003, 41 years after the Hartford hospital fire, 16 residents died in a nursing home fire in Hartford, Conn. In September 2003, 25 residents died in a nursing home fire in Nashville, Tenn. A report of the investigation rung hollow as it suggested that sprinklers should have been provided because there was not a “well-trained staff,” required by NFPA 101, present at these facilities. In spite of years of foot dragging by CMS, the American Healthcare Association, representing nursing home operators across the U,S., came to the NFPA 101 Technical Committee on Health Care Occupancies and requested that retroactive sprinkler requirements for nursing homes be incorporated in NFPA 101. The committee obliged.

So what is my point? What is the big deal? So, what if five or six people die in a fire near San Antonio. It only made news outside of the region for a day or two.

The point is that there is a chance the life loss was not in vain. What one sees when looking back at the progress in our codes and standards is that our society’s demand for an ever increasing level of life safety from fire. Our codes and standards are equipped to adapt to that change. This is good news. Things may move slowly but positive change can occur.

Fifty years ago it was a ridiculous concept to sprinkler homes. Over 40 years ago the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control report America Burning, recommended, "that the proposed U.S. Fire Administration support the development of the necessary technology for improved automatic extinguishing systems that would find ready acceptance by Americans in all kinds of dwelling units."

All of our model codes now require sprinkler protection in one- and two-family dwellings, the mother of all barn door closures.

I have faith in our flawed code development system. Yes, it is reactive. Yes, sometimes the lessons need to be learned multiple times. And yes, it can be slow. But eventually, it gets it right.

That is why I believe our society is very near a place where it will demand that our parents and grandparents not die in fires in multi-story residential facilities, be they high rise or low-rise, new or existing.

Samuel S. Dannaway, PE, is a registered fire protection engineer and mechanical engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering. He is past president and a Fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is president of S. S. Dannaway Associates Inc., a 15-person fire protection engineering firm with offices in Honolulu and Guam. He can be reached via email at SDannaway@ssdafire.com.

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