In the Event of Fire
A very long time ago, Carol was in a car crash and lost both of her legs at the knee. Decades later, after the death of her husband, she moved into an apartment at St. David’s Court in East Syracuse. St. David’s is a two-story, 24-unit apartment building occupied exclusively by people who are disabled. Carol—legless and in a power wheelchair—was rented an apartment on the second floor.
Sometime around 2006, the fire alarm went off at St. David’s. Smoke filled the halls, the fire doors swung closed, and the elevator shut down. St. David’s Court, operating under HUD regulations, has no staff to assist the tenants, all of whom have major disabilities. Under the management of Christopher Community, St. David’s has a part-time manager, who was not in the building, and a full-time superintendant, whereabouts unknown.
Carol was alone, unable to get off the second floor, and fearful of the immediate onset of flames. She wheeled herself to a position by her apartment window and waited in terror, wondering if help would come. First-floor tenants gathered in the lobby in their wheelchairs. A deaf man tried to lead a blind woman out of the building.
When the volunteer fire department arrived, they had trouble getting past all the wheelchairs to access the stairwell. When they ascertained that there was only smoke without fire, they put large fans in place to blow out the smoke. Tenants and firemen could not communicate because of the continuous howl of the fire alarm. There was no one on the premises who could turn it off.
Thereafter, shocked and frightened by our close call, the tenants asked for a fire drill. Peter Stockton, Christopher Community’s property supervisor, said we couldn’t have one. His reason was that Christopher Community had had a fire drill at a different property that was primarily for elderly people. During the fire drill one of the elderly tenants fell on the stairs and injured her leg, therefore disabled people could not have a fire drill. The rationale apparently was that it would be better for us to die in a fire than be injured in a drill.
The tenants of St. David’s managed to get a meeting with two members of the volunteer fire department. Among other things, they assured us that they absolutely positively would get us out in the event of fire. Good men and true, they had a singular focus: they would get us out of the building. Although we were sure they would try, we were not convinced they could succeed.
The firemen asked for information. They wanted to know which tenants in what apartments had what kind of disabilities. They also wanted to know which of us were on oxygen and what apartments we were in. A tenant agreed to supply them with the information. She later acknowledged that she didn’t do it. Neither did the manager.
The manager did work with the fire department to draw up a plan for what the tenants were to do in the event of fire. The plan, when finalized, was about six pages, single-spaced typewritten. It was passed out to tenants who are legally or literally blind, or have traumatic brain injury, learning disabilities or developmental disabilities. In short, a lengthy document about what to do in the event of fire was given to people who cannot read, understand or remember. There was no group review of the document, or practice session. In the event of fire, nobody would even know where their directions were. All they would do was add fuel to the flames.
Also living on the second floor are—
- Brian, who is disabled by multiple strokes, usually travels by manual wheelchair, and has aides twenty-four hours a day. The fire department advised that in the event of fire his aide should put him on a blanket and drag him down the stairs.
- When Judy rented an apartment at St. David’s, she could walk. She now uses a power wheelchair.
- When Patrick rented an apartment at St. David’s, he could walk. He now uses a power wheelchair, too. He also weighs about six hundred pounds. In the event of fire, he cannot be rescued through a window. He has no aide to drag him down the stairs.
- Heather is blind. Although she has a guide dog and a cane, she rarely uses them. She depends on people taking her by the hand and leading her around. She is dependant.
St. David’s Court is a two-story building occupied by twenty-three people who live alone with their disabilities. There has never been a fire drill; there is a virtually useless fire plan.
In the event of fire, people will die.
St. David’s is regulated by HUD and managed by Christopher Community. The Post-Standard would not report the story.