Investigators have determined that the fire that killed four residents of a West Chester senior-citizens home began on a rear patio outside the facility, leading investigators to explore whether the fire climbed an outside wall and spread quickly across the attic.
Charlene Hennessy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said Thursday that investigators have nailed down the patio as the starting point for the deadly blaze at Barclay Friends, but have yet to determine what triggered the fire itself, such as a burning cigarette, an electrical fault or something else.
If a cigarette were to blame, someone violated the rules at Barclay Friends. Smoking was not permitted by staff or residents anywhere on the facility grounds, including on the back patio, according to Colleen Ryan, a spokeswoman for the corporation that owns the home.
Hennessey said ATF engineers gingerly examined the blackened remains of the complex's gutted South Wing on Wednesday and are to return next week as part of an effort to determine the precise starting agent and to trace the fire's quick and deadly path through the two-story building. The agency, one among a phalanx of federal, state and local authorities examining the fire, hopes to announce more detailing finds next week, she said.
Arson and foul play are not suspected.
"This fire is purely accidental," Hennessey said.
The fast-moving blaze, which became a five-alarmer in only a half-hour, killed Mildred Gadde, 93, Theresa Malloy, 85, and Thomas Parker, 92, and his wife, Delores, 89, whom of smoke inhalation. The Chester County Coroner's Office declined to say where their bodies were found or whether they had also suffered from burns.
In all, 133 residents – 50 from the section for those with memory issues and the remainder from adjacent one-story buildings offering skilled nursing care – fled into a cold, windy night of Nov. 16. Fifteen staffers were working at the time. Twenty-seven people were hospitalized.
The facility's section for memory-impaired residents was hit hardest, with the fire devastating the roof that stretch over the large L-shaped building. Aerial photos show that the blaze did its worse damage in the quarters facing the patio, burning through the second floor in that area. The facility's teal-colored exterior walls are made of wood and siding.
In an interview Thursday, Richard Skinner, an expert on fire protection, said the fast pace of the blaze suggested a failure in the fire-suppression system, perhaps a lack of water. Reporters at the scene immediately after the blaze noted that none of the evacuees appeared to have doused with water as they might have been had a sprinkler system had been triggered.
"You didn't have the volume of water to get to the base of fire, is what I was thinking," said Skinner, a former firefighter who inspects New York City high-rises to see if their fire-protection systems are adequate.
John H. Morley Jr., another fire-protection expert, said he had examined the architectural and design documents for the facility. He said it had a "wet" sprinkler system — one in which the pipes were always water-filled — in its heated areas for residents and staff and a "dry" system in the unheated attic.
A dry system fills with water only when there is a fire; otherwise, water in the pipes could freeze and damage the system when temperatures drop.