Condos had own pump

Cause of fire may be released tomorrow

John Howell
Posted 3/17/15


Westgate Condominiums residents weren’t blaming the Warwick Fire Department for the loss of their homes during an informational meeting held Sunday at the Buttonwoods Community …

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Condos had own pump

Cause of fire may be released tomorrow



Westgate Condominiums residents weren’t blaming the Warwick Fire Department for the loss of their homes during an informational meeting held Sunday at the Buttonwoods Community Center.

“It’s not the firefighters’ fault,” said Rhonda Wright, who with Mac Odom was among the first to learn of the fire Wednesday morning shortly after 10. Wright and Odom where told by workers to get out of the 38-unit Building C because there was a fire.

Odom and Wright were two of about 50 residents of Building C who attended the meeting organized by the city administration so that fire victims could learn of services available to them and get investigation updates. The fast-moving fire destroyed all 38 units in the building, leaving an estimated 100 people homeless.

The Red Cross has stepped up, providing temporary housing for many of the victims along with vouchers to purchase housing and clothing. The organization was present at the meeting along with Mayor Scott Avedisian, who outlined other assisting agencies.

Neither he, nor Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong, would speculate on the cause of the fire or go into detail regarding why firefighters faced a lack of water and low water pressure. Avedisian said the investigation is ongoing. He expects a report tomorrow.

But residents didn’t need a report to conclude much of the building would have probably been saved if firefighters had had water.

The morning following the fire, Avedisian and Armstrong said at a press conference at the site that the Kent County Water Authority services that portion of the city and they would be questioned.

Although Westgate Condominiums is dependent on the authority for its water, the system serving the complex is “privately owned,” authority Executive Director Timothy Brown explained in an interview Friday.

“This fire was roaring when we got to it,” Armstrong said Thursday. Firefighters entered the building but quickly were forced to back out for fear the burning roof would fall in.

At Sunday’s meeting, Armstrong said firefighters knocked on some doors and conducted a “primary search” before being forced out.

In a release issued Friday, the mayor’s office reported the Warwick Fire Department has found that as of March 11 there were no outstanding deficiencies or violations regarding the Rhode Island Safety (Rhode Island Life Safety Code (RILSC) and Fire Alarm Codes (NFPA 72) for Westgate Condominiums.

Brown said when the complex was built as apartments in 1976, the authority had not installed the 24-inch main running down the west side of Quaker Lane. The developers therefore tied into a 20-inch line at the intersection of Major Potter Road and Quaker Lane. That line connects to a fire booster pump, which is on the condominium property, and is connected to the complex’s four hydrants. The hydrants, as well as the pump and the connecting piping, are a “separate system” owned by the condo association, Brown said.

Brown could not say whether, or when, the system was tested. He said an authority employee was at the property soon after firefighters arrived and that he was told the pump had “blown up.” In the urgency of the situation, Brown said the authority employee did not get the name of the person providing the information. Nonetheless, he said, he found it difficult to believe the pump blew up and it is more likely that it failed to work or quit.

Patti Doyle, spokeswoman for Churchill Banks, the management company for the complex, said that the pump overheated but was cooled by pouring water on it and continued running.

Brown also shed light on the story that a hydrant off site, which is not part of the condo system and could have provided firefighters the water they needed, was incapacitated when a vehicle drove over a charged hose. He didn’t know how it happened, but he said the four-inch port on the hydrant was pulled out of the hydrant.

“It takes a lot of force to pull that out. It must have been some force,” he said. With the port gone, the hydrant was disabled. He said it has since been replaced.

Brown said there are hydrants on the west side of Quaker Lane, but using them would have required closing the four-lane highway. He said water was obtained from a number of hydrants to the south and east of the complex, including Spencer Woods condos, which is also a private system.

Meters on the Kent County system, he said, “didn’t even show a blip in service” resulting from the fire.

“We had more than sufficient supply,” he said.

Even so, tanker trucks were dispatched from Coventry to supply water at the scene.

Some residents of Building C speculated the day of the fire that water may have had something to do with causing the blaze. The report was that the roof was damaged in February and that water was running down the walls.

Jose DaSalvia, who works for Rhode Island Property Management LLC, which was contracted to make repairs to the complex, said on Friday he was called in to “open the walls” on Feb. 16 because of leaks caused by an ice dam on the roof. He said he used plastic to seal off the area. He said he did not work in Building C the day of the fire. He was in Building B replacing plaster walls when he learned of the fire and raced to Building C. He found people coming out of the building and tried to go in to see if there might be others, but was driven back by heavy smoke.

“It was a horrible feeling. Everything was so fast,” he said.

The building predated building codes requiring sprinklers in buildings with multiple dwelling units as well as firewalls.

There was little doubt among victims at Sunday’s meeting that the fire was linked to space heaters being used to dry out walls soaked because of roof damage caused by ice dams.

A second-floor resident, James Simmons, said Building B had been similarly damaged and that a crew had been working there for a couple of weeks “pulling out stuff.” He said space heaters were being used in that building to dry out the walls.

“We could see them glowing,” he said.

Simmons was at work when the fire started. His wife, Susan Gaipo, was home. She said the alarm went off at about 10, but she assumed it was a false alarm because it soon went off. Residents reported Sunday that false alarms occurred frequently.

Not long afterward, another resident, Patty Cahir, who works for the Warwick Library and just returned from a vacation trip, banged on the door and told her to get out. Cahir also alerted a number of other residents and was identified as a “hero” at Sunday’s meeting. Gaipo got out with the clothes on her back. She didn’t even have time to get her purse. Also left behind were the family’s cats.

Simmons and Gaipo are now staying at the Residence Inn. They are getting by on Red Cross vouchers pending All State Insurance processing their homeowner’s claim.

At Sunday’s meeting, Simmons asked if, because the water pressure was so low at the complex, the situation remains dangerous for residents of the two buildings that escaped the fire.

“What is the city doing for the residents there now?” she asked.

Armstrong said the department had talked with the Kent County Water Authority.

“But right now it’s a complex without adequate water,” Simmons insisted.

Another resident asked why remains of the building had been pulled down so quickly and whether doing so destroyed evidence that could have been useful in determining the cause of the fire. The chief said he determined to go ahead with the piling of burned debris because the site posed a safety hazard. Asked the name of the company that is doing the work and the management company, Armstrong replied, “Right now I don’t know who owns the complex because I don’t have the paperwork in front of me.”

According to city records, 114 people own condos at Westgate. A condominium association is responsible for running the shared property of the owners.

“Did they look for space heaters before they buried it?” the man persisted. The chief said that is part of the investigation.

Another victim said he wanted to give his story to firefighters to assist with the investigation and asked for a show of hands of how many would be willing to be interviewed about the fire. About a dozen raised their hands.

Avedisian said the fire alarm panel was recovered from the fire and would be tested as part of the investigation.

Describing the scene at about 10:15 the morning of the fire, Odom said he saw people coming down the stairs with ladders.

“They told me to get out, that the building was on fire; they knew,” he said.

Odom is also organizing a fundraiser for the victims planned for April 19 at The Villa on Cowesset Road, West Warwick. Details have not been finalized.

Wright, who like Odom was among the first residents to learn of the fire, said after arriving at the scene, “Firemen were running around looking for water like chickens with their heads cut off. Whoever is responsible for the water, we need to investigate.”


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