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Victims of West Chester nursing-home fire ID'd; questions remain

The announcement came 12 days after the massive fire ripped through the senior living complex in West Chester, sending 137 residents and staff rushing to safety.

Firefighters battle a five-alarm blaze at the Barclay Friends Nursing Home in West Chester on Nov. 16, 2017.
Firefighters battle a five-alarm blaze at the Barclay Friends Nursing Home in West Chester on Nov. 16, 2017.Read moreSteven M. Falk / Staff Photographer

Nearly two weeks after a five-alarm blaze destroyed a West Chester senior living complex, the four residents who died in the late-night conflagration were publicly identified Tuesday by the Chester County Coroner's Office.

The victims were Mildred E. Gadde, 93, and Theresa J. Malloy, 85, and a married couple, Delores G. Parker,  89, and Thomas F. Parker, 92. All died of smoke inhalation, according to the coroner; the manner of death was pending.

Their identification brings to a close one of the unanswered questions from the devastating fire at Barclay Friends that broke out around 10:45 p.m. on Nov. 16, sending 133 elderly residents and 15 staff members scrambling to safety and jolting families from their sleep.  In surrounding homes, neighbors saw an orange glow and rushed to help. For nearly three hours, firefighters worked to extinguish the flames, which reduced a two-story assisted-living building to rubble and left investigative officials unable to enter the structure for days due to unsafe conditions.

For days afterward, the only certainty was that four residents remained unaccounted for.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Chester County Fire Marshal's Office were still investigating the fire's cause and origin but were no longer on the scene at 700 N. Franklin St. Early this week, they continued to interview people in the hope of identifying additional witnesses, ATF spokeswoman Charlene Hennessy said.

Because the ATF has found no evidence that the fire was set, the Chester County District Attorney's Office said it was longer involved in the investigation.

Hennessy said no further updates from the ATF would be provided until Thursday.

Late Tuesday, a few details emerged about some of the victims.

Thomas Parker worked at the S.H. Bell Co., a warehousing and stevedore firm based in Pittsburgh, and served in the Army Air Force in World War II.

Parker flew at least 15 missions during the war, according to Robert A. Coaltar, executive director of the Texas-based Army Air Corps Library and Museum.

John M. Bell, owner of the Pittsburgh company, recalled that Parker was small in stature, so he was assigned as a nose gunner.

"Because of his size, he fit in there," Bell said Tuesday. Parker was hired by Bell's father on June 1, 1952, as an accountant, and retired as the company's treasurer on April 1, 1990, Bell said.

"He was a nice guy, a family man," Bell said.

Parker and his wife were involved in Pittsburgh's South Avenue United Methodist Church, according to a receptionist there.

A daughter and a son-in-law of the Parkers declined to speak with a reporter.

Last week, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan announced that four residents remained unaccounted for after the blaze. By Thanksgiving, remains of all four had been recovered, but authorities did not publicly identify any of the victims until Tuesday.

Many questions about the cause of the fire, the building, and its sprinkler system remain unanswered by officials. Among them:

Was the building's sprinkler system operating?

Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for Johnson Control Inc., the parent corporation of Barclay Friends' sprinkler company, declined to comment when asked if the sprinkler system functioned properly during the Barclay fire. But he said his firm "is assisting authorities and currently gathering information to find out more details about the fire."

Was there any recent work to the building's electrical, gas, or water systems?

A review Tuesday by the Inquirer and Daily News of building permits provided by the Borough of West Chester for the facility does not appear to indicate permitted work in past months.

Was the structure protected by a fire-suppression system with sprinklers in each room as well as in the attic?

Officials for Barclay Friends declined to comment. A review of building plans and permits, only made available Tuesday afternoon, did not provide an immediate answer.

What type of sprinkler system was installed?

Spokesman Larry Elveru of Kendal Corp., parent company of Barclay Friends, declined to comment in an email, citing the ongoing investigation. Messages left with the Chester County fire marshal were not returned.

What does the ATF say about the sprinkler system? 

The agency would not answer questions about the system. Its National Response Team had sole possession of the facility's plans and permits for at least the last week and they were only made available Tuesday afternoon.

Based on news reports, what questions do fire-safety experts have about the fire?

Richard Skinner, a former fire marshal in New Jersey who said he was a consultant involved in the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people in 2003, questioned whether the sprinkler system was fully operational.

"If it was fully sprinkled, there is no way that building should have come down like that," Skinner said. He said that the system might not have been able to put out the fire but that it should have kept it from spreading.

Staff writers Mark Fazlollah, William Bender, and Mari A. Schaefer contributed to this article.