A new lawsuit that raises fresh questions has been filed in connection with the fatal fire late last year at the Barclay Friends senior citizens' facility in West Chester, alleging that the facility's builder deviated from plans by failing to install fire-resistant material — which would have slowed the fast-moving blaze — in the exterior walls.
In the suit, filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, the estate of Thomas Parker, 92, and Delores Parker, 89, two of the four elderly residents who died in the blaze, states that the couple died "terrifying, gruesome, agonizing, and lonely deaths."
The Parker estate's lawyers, James McEldrew, Daniel Purtell, and Ian Bryson, paint the couple as facing an especially desperate situation during the fire. The suit says both suffered from dementia and, although capable of walking, were accustomed to using an elevator to get downstairs from their second-story unit. When the fire broke out, the elevator automatically stopped running in the two-story building. The Parkers, parents of three daughters, died in their room.
The fast-moving fire began on the evening of Nov. 16 in the rear of the personal-care section of the seven-wing complex, and was likely caused by a tossed cigarette, officials have said. The five-alarm blaze gutted the 41-resident section. The six other wings, far less damaged, were home to some 100 residents receiving nursing care. Also killed in the fire were Theresa Malloy, 85, and Mildred E. Gadde, 93.
When the facility was planned, the suit claims, architectural drawings called for half-inch thick gypsum board to be installed under exterior vinyl siding. Gypsum, a soft fire-resistant mineral used in construction, would have stopped or slowed the spread of the fire from outside the structure to the inside.
But post-fire inspection, according to the suit, showed that the board was never installed. The suit faulted Barclay Friends and its architects for not ensuring that the gypsum board had been installed.
The suit, filed Tuesday, also blames the fire on an "unenforced nonsmoking policy," an "improperly constructed" outside wall that permitted the fire "to breach the building's interior," a "woefully inadequate" sprinkler network that had been erroneously turned off before the blaze, a "poor evacuation plan," and a lack of water available to firefighters.
A spokesman for Barclay Friends did not return a telephone call seeking comment Friday.
In December, the Malloy estate filed the first suit against Barclay Friends and others in the fire. In rebuttal pleadings, Barclay Friends has argued, among other defenses, that the cases should be resolved via binding arbitration and removed from the courts. Barclay has said that Malloy's son, upon his mother's admission, had signed the home's standard form agreeing that future disputes would be solved by arbitrators.
As lawyers for the families of those killed have previously alleged, the new suit also claims that the valve controlling the flow of water to the home's extensive sprinkler system was in the "off" position at the time of the blaze. To make matters worse, the suit states, the alarm system designed to alert staff when water was shut off was providing a false reading — wrongly signaling that the water was flowing and available.
That issue aside, the suit contends the builders of the facility in 1997 adopted the wrong construction standard for the personal-care wing, especially given that many of its residents suffered from dementia. Adoption of a more relaxed standard, it says, was a mistake that meant too few sprinklers were installed.
And as the Inquirer and Daily News have previously reported, the design firm for the sprinkler system put down widely different figures in different documents for incoming water available for the sprinkler network. The lawsuit cites this discrepancy in the plans, among others. Donald Vess, the designer of the system, acknowledged to a reporter that his plans included mistakes but said the errors were "typos" of little consequence, though others experts raised concerns. The company that hired Vess to do the design and the engineer that approved his sketches are named as defendants in the new suit, along with Barclay Friends' parent company, Kendal Corp.; the private water company Aqua; and Johnson Controls, the firm that conducted periodic tests of the sprinklers.
In naming Aqua, the suit notes that responding firefighters had complained of a lack of water during the blaze and that only weeks before the fire Aqua had announced a plan to replace the water main outside the facility, in part to "improve firefighting capabilities." Firefighters had to run one line 400 yards from an area hospital to fight the deadly blaze. Aqua has said that water issues had no effect on efforts to stop the fire.