Tuesday, August 13, 2013

TOP STORY>>$5 million sought in kids’ deaths

Leader staff writer

The fathers of four children who were killed in a March 2012 fire at a Jacksonville duplex are seeking more than $5 million in a lawsuit claiming firefighters and the housing authority were negligent.

Marilyn Beavers, 30, and her children — Dequan Singleton, 10, Sydni Singleton, 9, Haylee Beavers, 6, and Emily Beavers, 4 — died from smoke inhalation between 2:21 and 5:46 a.m. inside their Max Howell Place apartment at 3A S. Simmons Drive.

The Jacksonville Housing Authority manages Max How-ell Place, which is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 program that provides homes to low-income families.

Marilyn Beavers’ fiancĂ©, Furlandare Singleton — the father of Dequan, Sydni and Haylee — and Clyde Hatchett, Emily’s father, filed the lawsuit with the Pulaski County Circuit Court on Friday.

The fathers’ complaint claims the one smoke detector in the apartment did not sound an alarm.

The Leader previously reported that the detector should have been replaced in 2003.

A label stating that is visible in a photo provided as part of a 250-page report released after the tragedy.

According to that report, the detector — found on the floor just inside the doorway of a bedroom — failed to operate, its wires had been cut, and it didn’t have a backup battery.

But two maintenance men who discovered the victims’ bodies told police it was going off when they entered the apartment.

In July 2012, William M. Griffin III with Friday, Eldridge and Clark law firm of Little Rock, the attorney for the housing authority, provided The Leader with a work order from January 2012 and six others from 2011.

The documents indicated that the detector was checked, and it was working, when maintenance men came to the apartment to make several repairs requested by Marilyn Beavers.

According to Patricia Campbell, a HUD regional public affairs officer, smoke detectors are required in the hallways and in the kitchens of older buildings. Max Howell Place was last inspected in September 2012. It scored 84 out of 100, making the complex a “standard” performer that is inspected every two years, she said.

Firefighters first responded to the address around 5:50 a.m. — four minutes after the latest time of death — because the next-door neighbor, Jennifer Gray of apartment B, said she smelled smoke.

She was told that smoke had drifted from another fire across the freeway, about a mile away. That fire leveled an unoccupied home at 3400 Northeastern Ave.

The firefighters knocked on the door of Beavers’ apartment and, after there was no response, didn’t attempt to go inside.

According to the report, at least one of them looked in a window and saw that the living room didn’t have fire damage. Most of the damage was to the kitchen, where the fire started.

The firefighters claim they saw no evidence of a fire. They left about 30 minutes later.

The fathers allege that the firefighters weren’t properly trained on the thermal imaging equipment they used to check for signs of a fire at the apartment. The equipment is designed to detect heat.

The fathers also believe an “adequate and complete perimeter check” wasn’t performed.

The bodies were found around 7 a.m., when the maintenance men noticed some signs of smoke near the rain gutter.

The complaint states that, when firefighters first responded to the address, there were large pieces of glass from the kitchen window on the ground, signs of smoke on at least one front window and burn marks on the exterior part of the roof.

Gray, the next-door neighbor who called 911 when she smelled smoke, told a detective 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 also told The Leader that, although she often heard the children laughing and playing through the thin wall that divides the duplex, she didn’t hear a smoke detector going off.

Unattended cooking caused the fire and the deaths were accidental, the report states.

It is believed that Marilyn Beavers tried to extinguish it because she had severe burns on her hands, arms, forehead and neck.

She was found in the bathroom with her daughter, Haylee, cradled to her chest. The other children were found in their beds.

The fire was out when the firefighters arrived at the apartment for a second time around 7:30 a.m. that day, but the burner was still turned on, according to the report.

Director of Administration Jim Durham said on Tuesday afternoon that the city had not been served the fathers’ lawsuit yet and didn’t know what entity would respond to the complaint.

Mayor Gary Fletcher and housing authority executive director Phil Nix said they were advised by legal council not to comment. The city approves appointments to the board of commissioners that governs the housing authority.

Fire Chief Alan Laughy didn’t respond to an e-mail from The Leader by press time.

Laughy replaced 42-year veteran John Vanderhoof, who was the chief when the tragedy occurred and retired in February.