Family of West Chester nursing home fire victim asks: 'Why was she not protected? What happened?'
For the first time since last month's deadly five-alarm blaze at West Chester's Barclay Friends senior living complex, a victim's family came forward Wednesday to publicly share their story.
After Martin Malloy had dinner with his mother, Theresa, on Wednesday, Nov. 15, he left her in the first floor lobby of Barclay Friends. She joined a circle of fellow residents, who were batting around a balloon and "laughing like schoolkids," he said.
To Martin Malloy, dinner with mom had been a success. For the first time in the four weeks she had lived there, 85-year-old Theresa Malloy seemed to have come to the realization that the West Chester senior living complex was her new home, he said.
Before he left, he stood in the doorway and watched his mother for a few extra minutes. She was not aware he was still there. He listened to that laugh, the one the family knew so well.
"I thought I turned a corner there," Martin Malloy said. "That is the last time I saw her."
The next night, a five-alarm blaze ripped through the senior living complex, killing Malloy and three other residents and displacing more than 100 from a facility that may not have been properly protected, according to a preliminary investigation by the Malloy's legal team.
At a Wednesday afternoon press conference in Center City, attorneys Robert Mongeluzzi and Andrew Duffy said that Barclay Friends' fire suppression system failed the night of the Nov. 16 fire and the sprinklers did not activate.
Barclay Friends "did not protect Theresa as she was alone in her room, fire beginning to creep through the facility," Mongeluzzi said, "and she died because she did not get the protection she deserved."
"We continue to grieve for the families that lost loved ones in the fire, while also working to support the residents, families and staff members of the Barclay Friends community that have been displaced," The Kendal Corporation, Barclay Friends' parent company, said in a statement. "We are taking the information shared by representatives of one of our families seriously."
Kendal said it is fully cooperating with authorities but could not provide any additional information as the investigation remains ongoing.
Mongeluzzi said he was not ready to discuss any potential litigation. No lawsuits have been filed. Mongeluzzi said his legal team, working alongside fire experts, are first investigating what caused the fire and whether it could have been prevented.
Duffy, accompanied by its experts, conducted their first on-site inspection earlier Wednesday. The team took note of a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reconstruction of the rear covered patio, where the ATF has said the fire began. That reconstruction included the placement of a chair next to a metal trash receptacle, which Mongeluzzi said raises suspicion that a cigarette ignited the blaze.
"While we cannot address specific statements or questions about particular aspects of the investigation raised today, we can say that we are at a critical stage of our investigation," ATF Special Agent in Charge Donald Robinson said in a statement."The investigative agencies are united in wanting to make sure that we have all possible data before presenting the families, and then the public, with the results of our investigation."
Malloy's children – Gary Malloy, 62; Martin Malloy, 58; and Mary Dimaio, 55 – anxiously await those answers.
Speaking alongside their attorneys in Philadelphia, they recalled their mother as a faithful Catholic and the daughter of Irish immigrants. She was a single parent who raised her children in Oxford Circle and worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 25 years. She loved babies, laughter, and trips to Wildwood and Stone Harbor, with Springer's Homemade Ice Cream always a highlight.
She was fiercely independent, they said, but had begun to develop memory issues. Her children tried to care for her in her Chester County apartment for as long as they could, they said. After much consideration, they moved her to a second-floor room in the Barclay Friends assisted living facility at the end of October.
Martin Malloy said he stays awake many nights imagining what his mother went through that night less than four weeks later. Perhaps she was confused, he said, and did not know how to get out of the building.
The day after the blaze, "our panic was growing as we weren't able to locate her," Mary Dimaio said. "But it's nothing compared to the panic she must have felt in the middle of the night, dark, alone, by herself."
"Why was she not protected?" Martin Malloy said. "What happened?"
The fire, which broke out at Barclay Friends just before 11 p.m. on Nov. 16, killed four residents: Malloy; Mildred E. Gadde, 93; and a married couple, Delores G. Parker, 89, and Thomas F. Parker, 92. All died of smoke inhalation, according to the Chester County Coroner's Office.
The ATF said last week that the fire began on the building's back patio, then possibly climbed an outside wall and set the roof ablaze. The cause has not been determined, but smoking was not permitted anywhere on the Barclay Friends campus, the parent company has said.
Neither arson nor foul play are suspected. Charlene Hennessey, an ATF spokeswoman, said the fire was a tragic accident. No additional information was available Wednesday, she said, and may not be until after the holidays.
A total of 137 residents and 15 staff members were at the complex when the fire ignited and ripped through the two-story assisted living building, growing to a five-alarm blaze in half an hour. Some 27 people were injured.
In the days afterward, authorities hailed the efforts of the 400 responding emergency providers, some of whom ran into the inferno without breathing apparatuses. Meanwhile, neighbors in homes surrounding the 700 N. Franklin St. complex rushed to help move residents and keep them warm in a 40-degree night.
Fire-protection experts had previously told The Inquirer and Daily News that the speed at which the fire spread suggested a failure of the building's fire-suppression system. And tapes from that evening indicated firefighters struggled to get adequate water pressure.
It was not immediately clear whether the families of any of the other three victims had retained lawyers. Mongeluzzi said he could not comment on whether he would be representing any other families.