Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TOP STORY>>Firemen too late to save victims

Leader staff writer

If firefighters had entered a Jacksonville duplex apartment after a neighbor reported smelling smoke, they would have been four minutes too late to prevent the deaths of five victims, who were found there later that morning.

The time of death for Mari-lyn Beavers and her four children — Dequan Singleton, 10, Sydni Singleton, 9, Haylee Beavers, 6, and Emily Beavers, 4 — was between 2:21 and 5:46 a.m. March 22, according to an extensive report released to The Leader in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The fire department arrived at the family’s Jacksonville Housing Authority apartment, 3A S. Simmons Drive, at 5:50 a.m., according to the report.

The real culprit may have been the smoke detector in the home. It should have been replaced in 2003, according to a warning on the device. According to the report, its wires were cut and the detector didn’t have a backup battery.

JHA executive director, Phil Nix, refused to be interviewed and, in an e-mail to The Leader, said he had no comment.

City officials have been advised by the city attorney to not discuss the incident.

According to the report, Nix contacted the police department on March 23, the day after the tragedy, to ask when the Housing Authority could send its private investigators into the home.

Funderland Singleton, the fiancé of the mother and father of her children, said he is pursuing a lawsuit against the city and the Housing Authority. He has also hired a private investigator.

The firefighters who first responded to the scene spent 30 minutes there. They left when they found no sign of a fire.

The concerned caller, Jennifer Gray, who lives next door in 3B, was told smoke had drifted from another fire across the freeway, about a mile away. That fire leveled an unoccupied home at 3400 Northeastern Ave.

According to the report, firefighters did a walkthrough of Gray’s apartment, an external walk around the duplex and used a thermal imager, a device that detects heat. They knocked on the door and windows of 3A, but no one answered.

According to the report, at least one firefighter looked in a window and saw the living room and didn’t see any fire damage. Most of the damage was to the kitchen.

So, the firefighters didn’t go inside the apartment.

Later, Gray told a detective, according to the report, that she “didn’t think the firemen walked around the apartment complex,” and “the firemen were playing pranks on each other and not taking it seriously.”

She reported the smoke smell to maintenance workers about an hour after her first call about it. They entered the apartment, after noticing some fire damage at the rear of the building, around 7 a.m. and found three of the children in their beds. The mother was found in the bathroom, holding one of her children.

The fire had gone out by the time firefighters arrived for a second time at 7:30 a.m.

The fire marshal wrote in the report that it is likely that Marilyn Beavers, tried to put out the blaze because her arms were burned. None of her children were burned.

An internal investigation into the incident is ongoing.

The victims died from smoke inhalation after a small kitchen fire caused by “unattended cooking,” the report states.

A burned pot was found on the stove and the burner was turned on when firefighters arrived at the apartment for the second time that day.

Dr. Frank Peretti of the Arkansas State Crime Lab told investigators the victims would have died within three to five minutes and before they were able to smell the smoke.

Jacksonville Housing Auth-ority maintenance workers told police the smoke alarm was sounding off when they went inside the apartment, but it “failed to operate,” according to the report.

The housing authority oversees the low-income housing complex Max Howell Place, where the family lived.

The organization also handles disbursements involving hundreds of thousands dollars in rental housing vouchers.

It is an independent entity and more closely associated with the federal government than with Jacksonville, city administrator Jim Durham said.

When the housing authority was set up in the 1970s, the city council appointed five people to serve as commissioners, he said. After that, the organization selected new commissioners or re-elected the individuals on its board.

Durham said the city approves appointments.

He said that in 2006, when four of the five commissioners resigned, the council appointed four new commissioners because the board didn’t have a quorum.

According to The Leader’s archives, Nix was appointed by the new board to serve as housing authority executive director in 2007.

Durham said Nix has a background in every aspect within the authority, including maintenance.

Around the same time, the board completed a bid award for the installations of new air-conditioning units for the complex because most of the tenants had had to purchase their own or do without.

Durham was chairman of the authority’s board until 2009. He resigned when he accepted his current post. According to federal law, city employees and elected officials are not permitted to serve on the Housing Authority board.

And the city can’t touch Housing Authority funds, Durham said.

This isn’t the first time the Housing Authority has come under scrutiny.

In June 2006, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked for records of contracts and work orders for more than $132,000 spent by the housing authority. HUD officials scrutinized all contracts and purchase orders. They also requested those documents to be pulled and made available on June 28.

The day before, a Housing Authority employee informed HUD that then-executive director Virginia Simmons had directed her to create four contracts and to call contractors to come to the office and sign the contracts.

On the same day, Sim-mons “admitted to Mr. Jesse Westover, Public Housing director, Little Rock, Field Office, that she had falsely reported program obligation under the FY 2003 Capital Fund Program on Sept. 15, 2005, in the amount of $132,788.11,” according to the HUD review, which found that no application had been made for the grant, making the authority ineligible.

HUD officials concluded that these actions were taken in an attempt on the part of Simmons to document evidence to support contracts had legitimately been entered into before the obligation deadline of Sept. 26, 2005.

The review also alleged that the housing authority “did not properly advertise for bids in the excess of $25,000” or adequately keep documentation of solicitations.