Alarms disabled at SW Mo. building where 5 died

WHEATON, Mo. (AP) — The company that manages a southwest Missouri apartment building where five people died on Thanksgiving Day had disabled the manual fire alarms in the building about a decade ago, but the apartments each had working smoke detectors, a company official said.

Rick Schroeder, president of Bell Management, Inc. of Joplin, which oversees Blue Ridge Apartments in Wheaton, told The Springfield News-Leader (http://sgfnow.co/VXVMWs ) that the company disabled the five manual fire alarms pulls in the building 10 years ago.

“All the tenants were told they didn’t work when they moved in,” Schroeder said of the manual alarms. “We had problems with people pulling them in the middle of the night at all hours. That’s why they were disabled.”

Wheaton, a town of about 800 residents 60 miles southwest of Springfield, doesn’t have a fire code that would govern when fire alarms are required. Missouri has no statewide fire code, although some counties and cities have their own codes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office helped finance the apartment development and inspected it regularly. Rachelle Long, housing program specialist with the agency’s office in Columbia, said the building was last inspected in 2011, and that while the agency requires smoke detectors it does not require manual fire alarms.

The five people killed in the fire Nov. 22 were identified as Molly Doherty, 54, Jonathan “Jay” Gemmecke, 32, Mary Henning, 43, Henning’s 8-year-old son, Brandon Thurston; and Corey Hasche, 23. Authorities have said all five apparently died of smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire at the two-story apartment building remains under investigation.

Ellen Doherty, who was in the apartment where the fire apparently started, said no one told her the manual fire alarms didn’t work. Doherty, 25, told investigators that she woke up and saw fire behind a love seat in the apartment, according to a report from the Barry County sheriff’s office. Gemmecke poured water on the fire but could not put it out.

“Ellen stated they pulled all of the fire alarm levers outside the apartment,” the report said. “Ellen then stated that she went to the laundry room downstairs to try and get a fire extinguisher, but the laundry room door was locked.”

Doherty said she went outside and pulled the fire alarms, but nothing happened.

“I tried,” Doherty said. “They didn’t work.”

Schroeder said the standard building code his architects follow calls for a smoke detector in each unit, and the Blue Ridge Apartments were built with three smoke detectors in each unit. He said the building also included firewalls between every unit and the breezeway that are designed to protect against fire.

Jessica Ruh, Henning’s sister, wants Missouri to pass a fire safety law and suggests it should be named after her nephew, Brandon, whose body was burned so badly the sheriff’s investigator initially couldn’t determine his gender.

“It shouldn’t take the death of five people to change the law,” she said.

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com

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