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Overdue fire inspections: Waterbury fatal blazes highlight statewide problem

Margaret Armstrong, the mother of Alexia R Moreno who died in a fire at home, watches over the candles, holding the balloon from the commemoration on July 8, 2022 on Third Street in Waterbury. "I'm keeping this forever at home," Armstrong said. "I just want to know she is at peace."
Margaret Armstrong, the mother of Alexia R Moreno who died in a fire at home, watches over the candles, holding the balloon from the commemoration on July 8, 2022 on Third Street in Waterbury. "I'm keeping this forever at home," Armstrong said. "I just want to know she is at peace."

As she stood at the funeral home lectern last month, a photo of her 25-year-old daughter Alexia and her 17-month-old grandson Nasir propped up on an easel behind her, Margaret Armstrong sounded precisely like what she is — a stunned and grieving parent.

“I miss her dearly,” Armstrong said quietly through tears. “I wish I could hear her voice and see them again just one more time.”

Alexia Moreno, her partner Frederick Lawson and their son Nasir all died of smoke inhalation after a fast-moving, mid-morning blaze trapped them in their third floor apartment on Third Street in Waterbury on June 29.

Firefighters tried desperately to reach the family, pulling Lawson and Moreno out of the burning home and performing CPR, to no avail. The child was transferred to Yale New Haven Hospital, where he died a few days later.

While the cause of the blaze is still being investigated, city fire marshal inspection records obtained by The Connecticut Mirror show that Waterbury fire officials hadn’t inspected the house for fire code violations, such as working smoke detectors and proper egress, since 2008, despite a state law that requires all three-family homes to be inspected annually.

The fatal fire on Third Street was the second in three months in triple-deckers in Waterbury, resulting in five deaths. In early May, a fire on Arch Street claimed the lives of two men who were living on the second floor. The cause of that blaze also is still under investigation.

The most recent inspection report for the Arch Street house is from October 3, 2012, although someone from the fire marshal’s office visited the house six times last summer, city records show. While Waterbury Fire Marshal Thomas Fitzgerald acknowledged there was no report filed by his inspectors from the 2021 visits, he said the house met fire codes at the time of the fatal blaze. He did not produce any records indicating this is the case.

The two fatal fires expose an issue that has been festering for years across Connecticut: Fire marshals, particularly those in major cities, say they are unable to meet the state requirement that any residence with three or more units — houses or apartment buildings — must be inspected annually.

The existence of tens of thousands of three-unit dwellings, many of which are three-story homes in cities, that require annual inspections in Connecticut — coupled with fire marshals' offices that are chronically understaffed — means some of the oldest and potentially most dangerous houses are not getting timely inspections.

The backlog of inspections for these homes is especially worrisome given the age and condition of much of this housing stock, officials say. Many of these multi-unit homes were built in the 1800s or early 1900s and lack modern safety features such as fire doors and updated electrical wiring.

Multi-family apartments are lined up on Arch Street in Waterbury on Aug. 19, 2022. In early May, two men who were living on the second floor of the house on the far right died in a fire. The cause of that blaze is still under investigation.
Multi-family apartments are lined up on Arch Street in Waterbury on Aug. 19, 2022. In early May, two men who were living on the second floor of the house on the far right died in a fire. The cause of that blaze is still under investigation.

Fitzgerald said it is impossible for cities like Waterbury to meet the state’s mandate to inspect every triple-decker in the city annually. His department currently has six inspectors, and there are more than 2,200 three-unit residences in the city.

“We could have 25 inspectors in our office, and we still wouldn’t get to all of them,” Fitzgerald said, adding they also must inspect more than 40 schools, two hospitals and every restaurant and bar in the city.

From 2017 to 2021, there were between 300 and 400 fires every year in three-unit or larger residences in Connecticut, according to state data.

During the same period, there were 19 fire deaths in multi-family homes across the state, according to media coverage collected by the National Fire Incident Reporting System. Waterbury had three deaths, the most of any town in the state, along with New Haven and New Britain, according to the data.

Fire suppression over fire prevention

In an effort to determine how many multi-family residences there are in Connecticut — and the extent of the burden on the fire marshals who have to inspect them — the CT Mirror asked tax assessors across the state for the number of these homes in their communities.

More than 80 assessors responded, from just under half the municipalities in the state. The data show nearly 13,000 three-unit residences just in those communities.

Fire marshals also are required to inspect apartment buildings, which often requires them to dedicate one inspector just for that task. There are more than 9,000 residential properties with three or more units in Hartford and New Haven alone, according to assessor records in those cities.

Inspecting all those apartments and three- and four-unit houses, in addition to their other duties, is a struggle for fire marshals across Connecticut.

“New England communities have a history of putting more money into fire suppression than fire prevention. That’s just the way it’s always been,” Meriden Fire Marshal John Yacovino said. “We’re talking about homes that were built during the Civil War in some cases, so they are old and certainly not up to fire and safety codes.”

Meriden has nearly 1,000 apartment buildings in the city, as well as about 800 three- and four-family units. Yacovino estimates that his office is able to inspect about half of them every year.

“I have one inspector dedicated to apartment buildings. We hit them very, very hard, because we know that accounts for lots of people,” Yacovino said. “I wish I could do more, but it’s overwhelming.”

Fire marshals have a myriad of other responsibilities, including inspecting churches, day cares, schools, all restaurants and bars and town buildings, and reviewing any new building plans that come before land use commissions.

In Danbury, Fire Marshal Terry Timan estimates he has more than 800 three-unit houses that are supposed to be inspected annually.

"It is near impossible," Timan said. "Staffing is really the challenge. It really comes down to priorities."

The older triple-deckers are among the biggest concerns for fire marshals because those properties are not required by the state fire code to have sprinkler systems or fire alarm systems, like larger apartment complexes.

"You take some of these old Victorians or triple-deckers, you don't have the sprinklers," Timan said. "You don't have the alarm system."

Timan, who was appointed the fire marshal in 2019, said Danbury is currently working to update its technology, which will allow his office to more easily track inspections.

The pandemic also didn't help fire marshals trying to catch up on inspections, as any inspection that required going into a person's home was delayed for months in the spring of 2020.

"COVID made it harder to do inspections, because no one was letting you inside their home for months," Fitzgerald said.

A burnt house roof on Arch Street, Waterbury. Waterbury Fire Marshal Thomas Fitzgerald said the house met the fire codes when it was inspected in July and August of 2021, but acknowledged there was no inspection report filed indicating what they found there, if anything, and said "my guys needed to do a better job of documenting."
A burnt house roof on Arch Street, Waterbury. Waterbury Fire Marshal Thomas Fitzgerald said the house met the fire codes when it was inspected in July and August of 2021, but acknowledged there was no inspection report filed indicating what they found there, if anything, and said "my guys needed to do a better job of documenting."

A warning lawsuit

Complaints from fire marshals about the requirement to annually inspect all of the residences with three or more units aren't new.

Several city fire chiefs have approached the legislature trying to get the law changed, and many privately fear talking about the issue because they are afraid of getting sued if something happens in their municipality.

That fear stems from the aftermath of a 2009 fire in Bridgeport that caused the deaths of four people and ended up in a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court.

The fire occurred in November 2009 at the P.T. Barnum Apartments, which were maintained by the Bridgeport Housing Authority.

There were 20 units in the three-story building, and each unit included a kitchen, bathroom, dining/living room on the second floor and three bedrooms on the top floor.

The unit that Tiana Black and her three children — 5-year-old Nyshon Williams and his 4-year-old twin sisters Nyaisja Williams and Tyaisja Williams — lived in had only one way in, a door that opened onto the porch and down an outside staircase.

Investigators believe that all four family members were alerted to the fire by smoke detectors, because they tried to escape. At least two of them were found only a few feet from the door, while Nyshon was found near a window in his bedroom.

All four died of smoke inhalation. Investigators concluded the fire started on the kitchen stove.

The estate for the family filed a lawsuit against the housing authority, claiming that it had been negligent by not inspecting the apartments at P.T. Barnum, as the law required. Bridgeport officials asked a Superior Court judge to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the city was covered by sovereign immunity and couldn’t be held liable for failing to inspect.

While the lower court judge agreed with the city and dismissed the lawsuit, the Supreme Court ruled that the city could be held liable because fire officials were aware of the state law. By not inspecting the apartments, they were showing a “reckless disregard” for residents' safety, the court ruled.

The court’s interpretation of what constituted "reckless disregard" shook fire marshals across the state, particularly in bigger cities that had thousands of three- and four-unit homes and not nearly enough staff to inspect them all in a timely fashion.

“There’s no doubt the big cities' fire marshals took notice of our case, because they now knew they could no longer hide behind sovereign immunity if they got sued for not inspecting these homes and apartments,” said Bridgeport attorney John T. Bocanis, who filed the lawsuit with his law partner Thomas J. Weihing.

Once the Supreme Court ruled against Bridgeport and remanded the case back to superior court, the city settled the case for an undisclosed amount in 2018.

That was the second settlement in the case; in 2013, there was an initial $2.75 million settlement against the Bridgeport Housing Authority, according to news reports.

No help from the legislature

Recognizing the seriousness of the Supreme Court ruling, fire chiefs from the state’s largest cities joined forces and went to the legislature in 2018, seeking new laws to make larger cities, such as Bridgeport and New Haven, immune from damages in lawsuits over fire deaths. The sponsors wanted to make sure municipalities weren't held liable for residences that missed their required annual inspections.

During a legislative hearing, New Haven Fire Chief John Alston testified that it was next to impossible for his six fire inspectors to get to the thousands of three-unit houses that dot the city.

"I'm very concerned that we cannot meet the current requirements of the state regulation that requires us to inspect three-family residences within a one-year span," Alston told lawmakers.

At that time, Alston said, there were over 20,000 buildings in New Haven that were required by law to be inspected annually, including churches, schools, restaurants and a variety of apartments.

"In round numbers, that would require each inspector to inspect 3,000 buildings in one year," Alston said. "Totally impossible ... yet the city is still held liable for damages in these buildings due to fire."

Bridgeport Fire Chief Richard Thode, who had just taken over that department in 2017, also submitted written testimony to the legislature asking lawmakers to hold cities harmless if they don't get to all of their annual inspections.

Thode testified that his fire marshal and 11 other inspectors were responsible for inspecting more than 50,000 housing units every year.

"Simply put, this is a burden that is simply impossible for the city of Bridgeport to realistically meet," Thode said.

Not everyone working in the state's fire departments agreed with the bill, however. The Connecticut Fire Marshal's Association asked lawmakers to dismiss the bill and warned the legislation could put people at risk.

"The Connecticut Fire Marshal’s Association opposes this bill because of the detrimental effect that it will have on the safety of people who live, work, worship and play within buildings throughout the state of Connecticut," the organization said.

In the end, lawmakers altered the bill so that it would create a task force to study the inspection schedules for residential apartment buildings throughout the state. But the legislation stalled before it was ever taken up by the full House or Senate.

The issue has not been brought before the legislature since.

'Shook me real bad'

The triple fatal in Waterbury on Third Street started shortly after 10 a.m. on June 29 and spread quickly through the three-story house, Fitzgerald, the city fire marshal, said. The house was built in 1893, according to the city assessor's records.

It is unclear whether fire code violations contributed to the family getting trapped on the third floor, but in an interview with WTNH, a neighbor said they heard the family screaming for help but couldn’t reach them.

Micheal McNair, who lived on the second floor of the house, said he and his nephew saw “flames and tried to get to their neighbors but could not get up the stairs because of the heat and smoke.”

“To hear somebody yelling for help, you can’t help them … it’s like horrifying to me,” McNair said. “When it happened, then I see the baby come outside, and they were giving him CPR and stuff, it kind of shook me real bad.”

Destiny Miller told The CT Mirror she can’t remember if she saw smoke detectors in the apartment when she visited her sister and nephew.

Unlike some other triple-deckers on the street, 18 Third St. didn’t have an outside fire escape.

“You’re not really paying attention to whether there’s a smoke detector when you are there to see your sister and her baby,” Miller said. “I know she wasn’t happy that the landlord wasn’t fixing things.”

Fitzgerald said that the house did have a second egress — indoor stairs on the side of the house that led outside. He said his understanding is at least one of the two people who died had mobility issues, which could have played a part in their being unable to escape.

Miller said both her sister and Lawson had trouble moving about, especially Lawson, who had suffered a stroke that impacted his mobility.

While the investigation into the origin of the fire is continuing, Fitzgerald said it will likely be undetermined. State police detectives from the fire and explosives unit were brought in to assist and have found no evidence that the fire was set intentionally.

Fire officials believe it may have started on the third floor back porch, which suffered the most fire damage. They removed a few charred floor boards from the porch to test for accelerants, and those results are still pending.

Fitzgerald said he doesn't believe the lack of inspection of the Third Street house had any impact on why the fire became a fatality.

“If that house had been inspected the day before the fire, I believe it would have passed,” Fitzgerald said, noting that first firefighters who arrived on the scene heard the smoke detectors going off in the third-floor apartment as they tried to access it.

He also said that the doors were fire-rated and the stairwell had working emergency lights.

“The question is, why didn’t they get out? And we will never know the answer to that,” Fitzgerald said.

The house is owned by DJ Wallas Investments LLC, whose principal owner is Daniel J. Wallas of Wolcott, according to state records. Wallas purchased the house on Third Street for $28,000 in 2015, city records show. It is appraised at about $93,000.

The CT Mirror made several attempts to contact Wallas, but he has not responded. Wolcott attorney Alicia Perillo, who has previously represented Wallas several times in eviction cases in Waterbury Housing Court, also did not return calls for comment. It is not clear if Perillo is still representing Wallas.

Wallas owns another three-family house in Waterbury, at 1118 East Main St., and officials say fire code violations there were quickly resolved after a Jan. 6, 2022 inspection.

The property was cited for having faulty electrical wiring in the basement, a lack of smoke detectors in the bedrooms and doors that were not fire-code compliant, inspector Matthew Sivilla wrote in his six-page report, filed on Jan. 18, 2022.

Four of the six violations were resolved within 30 days, according to Sivilla's report. The violations for smoke detectors and fire doors were not checked off as completed, records show.

The struggles of securing inspections

Several fire marshals said one of the challenges of completing inspections is locating the owners to gain access to the homes — and then getting them to fix the problems.

When a fire marshal finishes an inspection, he will send a certified letter to the homeowner listing the violations and giving them a 30-day window to fix them. Many fire marshals said as long as a homeowner contacts them and shows progress toward completing the work, they will let the 30-day deadline lapse.

But there are many times when the homeowner either doesn't fix the violations or doesn't contact the fire marshal about them. In those cases, fire marshals can seek to have a state prosecutor issue a warrant for violating the state fire codes.

Yacovino said he currently has 16 cases in the courts, and judges' rulings tend to clear up the cases.

"It takes the chasing out of our hands and makes the homeowner have to go to court and tell a judge why this hasn't been done," Yacovino said.

A court order from a judge setting a time frame to get violations finished or face large fines, or even jail time, eventually gets the homeowner to respond, Yacovino said.

Another fatal fire, two months earlier

The fire on Third Street was Waterbury's second fatal triple-decker fire within two months.

On May 3, firefighters responded to a blaze at 16 Arch St. at 4 a.m. and found the house fully engulfed when they arrived. While first-floor residents were able to escape, two men who may have been illegally living on the second floor died in the fire.

Both Christopher Chandler and Nelson Lindsey died of smoke inhalation, according to Chief State's Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill. The deaths were ruled accidents.

While the cause of the fire remains under investigation, Fitzgerald said that Chandler and Lindsey were not legal tenants and that only the first floor was a legal residence.

"The electricity was not even on to either the second or third floor apartments in that building," Fitzgerald said.

Like the multi-family house on Third Street, the Arch Street house was built in the 1890s when a technique known as a balloon frame construction was popular. Both were built with balloon-frame construction, Fitzgerald said.

The balloon construction leaves gaps between floors and walls, so if there is a fire, it can spread quickly between the walls. A fire that starts on the first floor can easily spread quickly to the other side of the house on the third floor because there are no fire walls in between, making it difficult to stop.

The three-family house was sold in January 2022 to Lilia and Ana Ruiz of New York City for $109,000, city records show. Neither responded to multiple attempts to reach them.

Thelast fire code inspection report for the house was in 2012-13, according to fire marshal's records.

The house was inspected in October 2012, and numerous fire code violations were identified, from missing smoke detectors on the second and third floors to missing emergency lights along the stairwell. City records show that fire officials were satisfied that all of the code violations were fixed by early 2013.

But fire department records show that fire marshal inspectors visited the house six times in 2021 between July 22-August 15. The records supplied to The CT Mirror as part of a Freedom of Information request do not include any reports or documents that explain those six visits just months before the fatal fire.

Fitzgerald said that the Arch Street house met the fire codes at the time it was inspected in July and August of 2021. He said the inspection came about because of a complaint that turned out to be an owner/tenant issue.

He acknowledged there was no inspection report filed indicating what they found there, if anything, and said “my guys needed to do a better job of documenting.”

A few years ago, in order to inspect more triple-deckers, the fire marshal's office started doing mass inspections, he said.

"We pick a street or a neighborhood block and park there and have every inspector on scene and inspect every house that qualifies under the code," Fitzgerald said. "It allows us to get to as many as we can in one shot, because we can't get to all of them."

'Anywhere somebody goes to sleep'

When Charlie Miller took over as East Haven’s fire marshal, he committed to inspecting all 65 three-unit houses in the town. More than a year later, he has finished all but three and is now getting ready to begin the process over again.

“When I was in school, I was told I should prioritize what needs to be inspected, and an old fire marshal told me that’s anywhere somebody goes to sleep,” Miller said.

While all fire marshals have different routines for conducting inspections — some, for example, show up unannounced, while others try to work with homeowners to gain access — what they are looking for once they get inside is universal.

Does each apartment have operating smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors? Is there a fire extinguisher for the kitchen area since grease fires and stovetop flare-ups are a common cause of fires?

Are there at least two ways out of the apartment, and are they not blocked either by junk or a piece of furniture?

Charlie Miller, East Haven fire marshal, walks around multi-family condominiums for a fire inspection on Sep. 23, 2022. Miller makes sure that grills are not set on the deck and electric meters are functional.
Charlie Miller, East Haven fire marshal, walks around multi-family condominiums for a fire inspection on Sep. 23, 2022. Miller makes sure that grills are not set on the deck and electric meters are functional.

Miller said he also checks the basement for overcrowding or washers and dryers that don't meet the fire code.

“I shouldn't say washers and dryers are not supposed to be there,” Miller said. “They can be there if they have a sprinkler system or they have a fire-rated barrier, which a lot of them don't have, because the house is over 100 years old.”

Yacovino said one of the other issues with the current fire codes is that three-family homes are treated the same way as apartment buildings, even though they are decidedly different structurally.

For example, if a house has a staircase to the top floor, it must have emergency lighting on every floor, which means homeowners must install it in older homes.

If a fire marshal finds code violations, they will send the homeowner an itemized list of what must be corrected and give them 30 days to report how and when they plan to correct the problems. If it requires more than replacing batteries in a smoke detector, the fire marshal must schedule a second visit to check that the work has been done.

If the homeowner doesn’t respond or doesn’t fix the problems, the fire marshal can issue an abatement order and refer the case to the state’s attorney’s office for prosecution, usually in housing court.

Miller has made two referrals to court since he took over as East Haven’s fire marshal — one was for a residential group home, and another was for hoarding issues.

Miller said when a homeowner questions his inspections or whether certain things must be fixed, he simply says, “I'm only telling you what needs to be done to protect yourself and your residents in case of an emergency.”

“We need to get this done right for the safety of your tenants so that, frankly, no one dies.”

Together forever

Family and friends of Alexia Moreno gathered recently at a Shelton funeral home to pay their last respects before heading to a park in Derby where she used to take her son.

Many family members were wearing black T-shirts with a photo of Alexia holding her son Nasir in the center and the words "In Loving Memory — Alexia and Nasir — together forever."

Her grandmother Brenda Brockenberry, who helped raise Alexia and her sister Destiny, said that having Nasir had made granddaughter the happiest she had ever seen her.

"She loved that little boy," Brockenberry said. "I always wanted to just hold that cute little boy, but she wouldn't let anybody near him."

Destiny Miller said the family is still coming to the realization they are both gone.

"It's just been so shocking, to me," Miller said. "It's not really hitting us that they are gone. It was all so fast."

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