As the fire began to intensify and rapidly spread behind the walls of the third-floor billiard room in the Marshall Square retirement community in the early morning hours of June 2, a deadly sequence of events occurred, according to local attorney Sam Nicholson.
“It was like the Titanic,” said Nicholson, a senior partner in the law firm of Nicholson Revell LLP. “People said it would never go down. Well, it did.”
First, the fire alarm was manually silenced multiple times during the first 30 minutes of the fire that began just minutes after 3 a.m.
Next, residents who were concerned about a potential danger in the building were allegedly instructed by the property manager to remain in their rooms because Marshall Square had a “state-of-the-art” fire and monitoring system.
Then, the staff waited more than 15 minutes after the initial fire alarm sounded to call 9-1-1.
As a result of these actions, 91-year-old Dorothy Carpenter tragically lost her life in the fire, while 82-year-old Rhetta Cadle miraculously survived after being trapped in her third-floor apartment for almost seven hours.
It was a perfect storm, Nicholson said.
“The staff waited all that time, like 17 minutes, before they even called the fire department,” said Nicholson, whose law firm is representing both Cadle and the Carpenter family. “I think the fire safety standards say you are supposed to call within the first three minutes. But they just thought there wasn’t anything happening, so somebody kept turning off the fire alarm. It’s just terrible.”
Now, eight months after the devastating fire that destroyed Marshall Square, Nicholson is determined to hold those responsible for this terrible tragedy accountable.
“The big questions right now are: Who was responsible for turning off the fire alarm five times? And who was responsible for turning off the sprinklers?” Nicholson said. “And, of course, what really concerns me is that ‘shelter in place’ policy at Marshall Square that didn’t get people out of there. That was a big part of what happened that morning.”
Nicholson is also scheduling an inspection of the packaged terminal air conditioner, often referred to as PTAC, that was located in Marshall Square’s billiard room.
PTAC is a self-contained heating and air conditioning system commonly found in hotels, motels, senior housing facilities, hospitals, condominiums and apartment buildings.
Nicholson wants experts to inspect this particular unit manufactured and distributed by Goodman Company.
“We are real anxious to take a look at that PTAC unit to see if that’s really where the fire started,” Nicholson said. “The preliminary indication is pretty strong that’s where it originated.”
In August 2014, a number of PTAC units by Goodman were recalled.
Nicholson is also hopeful that the highly anticipated report from the state fire marshal’s office will also shed some light on the events surrounding the fire.
Over the summer, investigators from all over the state, including representatives from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the state fire marshal’s office, returned to Marshall Square and conducted an extensive, on-site investigation of the more than $25 million property owned by the Nebraska-based company, Resort Lifestyle Communities.
“The report is supposed to come out in March is what I’ve been told,” Nicholson said. “Of course, those types of reports don’t put blame on any parties. They just tell what happened, but you can kind of infer blame out of what is reported.”
But local attorney Jack Long, a partner at the law offices of Tucker Long, believes it doesn’t take much to determine who is at fault for the tragedy at Marshall Square.
“We have a photo from an apartment in the building that has one of the notices that the residents were given that specifically says stay in your room if you hear the alarm,” said Long, who is representing former Marshall Square residents Charles and Margaret Moye. “That is absolutely stupid. Children have fire drills all the time in school. They know to evacuate the building. Every school in America from the superintendent down to the teacher’s aide knows, if you have a fire drill, you have a designated place where everyone is supposed to meet and you get everybody out of the building.”
But somehow the staff at Marshall Square decided not to immediately evacuate the residents as soon as the fire alarm sounded, Long said.
“We put 98 percent of the blame on Marshall Square,” Long said. “They lied to the county, they tried to blame the fire department for everything and it is not true.”
When it came to addressing the actions of some of the Marshall Square representatives, Long did not mince any words.
“Somebody should go to jail for this,” Long bluntly said.
He insists, from the very beginning, the owners of Marshall Square weren’t honest with the Columbia County officials.
“They insured this place as a healthcare facility,” Long said. “They actually told the insurance company this was a healthcare facility, and yet, they built it like an apartment complex. They lied to the county. I think if Marshall Square would have told the county, ‘We are going to build a healthcare facility,’ the quality of building materials and the number of fire protection devices would have gone up dramatically.”
“They told the people they were going to have residents 55 and older. Well, they didn’t say the average age would be 80,” Long said. “That’s a big difference.”
Of course, representatives from Resort Lifestyle Communities insist that “safety is always a top priority” and its buildings meet “all comprehensive safety codes, complying with federal, state, and local regulations.”
The company also maintains their complexes are built using “fire resistant material in constructing and furnishing the building” and are equipped with door alarms, sprinklers and fire alarms.
“They have passed all inspections by state and community regulated agencies,” the company stated.
Due to the fact that Resort Lifestyle Communities has more than a dozen similar luxury retirement communities in other states such as Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, the fire at Marshall Square has raised some concerns and questions across the country.
Just last summer, The Lincoln Journal Star questioned Resort Lifestyle Communities CEO Breck Collingsworth about the company’s policies and emergency plans.
Collingsworth assured other residents of complexes owned by Resort Lifestyle Communities that they would not be told to stay in their apartments during an emergency, such as a fire.
“They would be told to evacuate if it was safe,” Collingsworth told The Lincoln Journal Star in July. “If it was not safe to evacuate, they would be told to stay in the safest place possible until help (fire personnel) could get them to safety.”
While Collingsworth agreed that Carpenter’s death was tragic, he pointed out that that more than 80 residents were evacuated safely from Marshall Square.
“What I can say for our managers was they were actively involved in evacuating the residents, not telling them to stay in their apartments,” he told the newspaper. “We have letters from residents stating how appreciative they were in getting them out of the building.”
In fact, Collingsworth said he looked forward to rebuilding Marshall Square in Evans as soon as possible.
“Of the 82 residents in 73 apartments that safely evacuated, all but a handful have indicated that they want to return when we reopen,” Collingsworth told The Lincoln Journal Star. “Our chief operating officer, Steve Mueller, and two other staff members of Marshall Square have worked very hard since the fire to help relocate our displaced residents and help them retrieve their personal belonging from the building.”
However, Long thinks Collingsworth is dreaming if he sincerely believes there will ever be another Marshall Square built in Columbia County in the future.
“I don’t think the county will ever let them build it back,” Long said. “I think when the company started lying to the county and they told the county that the fire department told them they could have this ‘shelter in place’ policy, it was over. The fire department never approved that policy. That was an outright lie. But (representatives from Resort Lifestyle Communities) are trying to blame everybody under the sun, except themselves.”
Long also insists that many personal belongings were not returned to the former residents of Marshall Square.
“After the fire, the Marshall Square Defendants made no effort to recover personal property of a sentimental value, some of which was located in safes, but allowed the clean-up crews to take items that were irreplaceable,” Long wrote in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of some of the Marshal Square residents.
In regard to the lawsuit, local attorney Freddie Sanders was recently appointed by Superior Court Judge Carl Brown to help recover the property of former Marshall Square residents.
Sanders was also been given the authority to investigate the disposition of any of the residents’ property.
Fortunately, Long said they already have a few leads that may help recover some of the residents’ beloved items.
“Luckily, we have this lady, who is a retired oncologist from New York, who basically caught them selling their dresser and was able to stop it,” Long said.
Nicholson was also contacted by a local woman named Carolyn Dickson, who attended an estate sale on Roxbury Drive in Evans this past August and was told that the items being offered for sale were from Marshall Square.
“She saw between 30 to 40 items of furniture as well as assorted other decorative items, glassware, jewelry and personal effects,” Nicholson said. “While inspecting the furniture she saw personal papers, letters, cards and Bibles.”
Dickson agreed to provide an affidavit to assist with the class action lawsuits filed by the former Marshall Square residents.
“Based on my observation and inspection of the furniture and other items, all the items appeared to be in good shape and had no obvious water, fire or smoke damage,” Dickson stated. “The person conducting the estate sale also informed me that her husband was at the Marshall Square complex picking up additional items for sale that day. I went to the Marshall Square complex and took a photograph of a man in a pickup truck that was loading furniture and other items from the Marshall Square site.”
Nicholson simply shook his head.
“It is crazy,” he said, as he laid the affidavit down on his desk. “Everything that could go wrong, did.”
And now these former Marshall Square residents, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s, are trying to recover items that might be scattered across the entire two-state region and beyond, Long said.
“One problem we are having, some of these people are able to come up with sort of a list of the items they lost, but some of them can’t,” Long said. “So, we have recommended to people that they go ask their children to see if they took pictures of things. For example, like the last time they had a family gathering. That way, the pictures might help them see items in the background. Because identifying all of your missing belongings can be difficult. If somebody asked me and my wife to tell them everything that is in our house, we couldn’t do it.”
While some people are quick to point out that a few of the residents have already received insurance money for the items they are missing, Long said that isn’t true in most cases.
“A lot of them did not have insurance, or if they had insurance, they didn’t have enough insurance to cover the total loss,” he said, adding that his clients, Charles and Margaret Moye, did not have any insurance on their property inside Marshall Square. “And they lost everything.”
Just last week, Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross and County Administrator Scott Johnson met with several former residents of Marshall Square who are now living in Washington Commons in Evans.
Although the former residents had a list of questions regarding the cause of the fire and the complex’s “shelter in place” policy, Cross talked more about the possibility of rebuilding Marshall Square.
But Long insists that he doesn’t believe that will ever happen.
“I think Ron Cross was lied to. He was lied to by the people behind Marshall Square and, I know Ron, he does not appreciate people lying to him,” Long said. “I think their goose is cooked.”
During the meeting with Cross and Johnson, Long said many residents simply wanted to stress the importance of the county not allowing a future retirement community to be built under the same codes again.
Under the county’s current building codes, Marshall Square was approved as basically an apartment complex, he said.
“Ron Cross was in the construction business. He knows about plans and building stuff, but they lied to him,” Long said, referring to officials with Resort Lifestyle Communities. “They told the insurance company when they got the insurance policy, it was a healthcare facility, but that is not what they told the building department when they got the building permits.”
When Cross was contacted by the Metro Spirit this week to discuss the county’s building codes and the Marshall Square fire, the chairman did not want to answer any specific questions until the report from the state fire marshal’s office is released.
“I don’t want to comment on that until the report comes out and they give us some indication of what they were trying to do,” Cross said.
Columbia County Commissioner Trey Allen also said he could not discuss details regarding the construction of Marshall Square because of the litigation relating to the fire.
However, Columbia County Commissioner Bill Morris agreed to speak with the Metro Spirit because he said he understood that the former residents of Marshall Square needed answers.
“Of course, this is a complicated situation,” Morris said. “But I think that we should look at this to make sure that any building that is being proposed to be built meets all of the codes and that it turns out to be a safe place for people to live.”
Some of the information he has read regarding internal policies and procedures at the former Marshall Square deeply concern him, Morris said.
“You hate to second guess people, but then again, you have got a situation here where, not only did that one lady lose her life, but people also lost their homes and their possessions,” Morris said. “It is something that concerns me a lot and I want us to spend some time looking at it.”
Much like Cross, Morris said he is anxious for the state fire marshal’s office to release its official investigative report.
“I think that is kind of the trigger for this whole thing. At least for me, it is. Because I’m still just acting on what I read in the paper and what I hear and my own opinions and sometimes you can go down the wrong path when you do that,” Morris said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. I think it is real important to listen to the experts and see what they determine is the cause of the fire.”
Once that information is released, Morris said it will be vitally important for the county take a serious look at the findings.
“We have to learn as we go forward,” Morris said. “I just don’t think we can sit back and say, ‘Well, it’s unfortunate. Life goes on.’ This is a time to pause and reflect and see if there are some things that need to be looked at under a little bit more scrutiny and I think this is one of those situations.”
The last thing the commission wants is for another terrible incident similar to the Marshall Square fire to happen again in Columbia County, Morris said.
“My heart goes out to the residents. I knew some of the people personally, so that hits even closer to home,” Morris said. “I can just imagine if my parents had been there, how I would have dealt with it as a child of elderly parents. It’s very sad. So, we need to wait for the official report and then try to make some decisions as we move forward and hopefully never have anything like this ever happen again for anybody.”