St. David’s Fire–Another Story the Post-Standard Wouldn’t Report


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.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
This entry was posted in activism, advocacy, disability, disability rights, Government Services, Housing, Poverty, Power, power wheelchairs, Powerlessness, Values and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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