Shortly after the devastating fire at the Marshall Square retirement community that killed 91-year-old resident Dorothy Carpenter and displaced more than 80 senior residents, the owners of the property proudly proclaimed that they planned to rebuild.
“Not only is it our hope and intent to rebuild, we’re preparing to rebuild,” Steve Mueller, chief operating officer for the Nebraska-based company Resort Lifestyle Communities cheerfully told The Augusta Chronicle last July. “We’re very happy with our decision to come to Evans, and it was very much playing out exactly as we had anticipated. We have no second thoughts about rebuilding.”
For months, representatives of Resort Lifestyle Communities wanted to simply focus on the future and try to avoid questions about the past.
But following the recent depositions taken in the civil cases against the owners and some of the employees of the former $27 million Marshall Square retirement community in Evans, the testimonies are beginning to shed light on what went wrong in the early morning hours of June 2, 2015.
During last month’s deposition of the chief operating officer of Resort Lifestyle Communities, Mueller admitted to local attorney Sam Nicholson that the company had no fire safety plan or evacuation plan in place prior to the June 2 fire.
In fact, Resort Lifestyle Communities had not implemented a fire safety plan at any of the company’s facilities across the country.
Resort Lifestyle Communities owns more than a dozen other senior living communities in states such as Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio and Nebraska.
“When you said you did not have a fire safety plan nor an evacuation plan for any of those facilities prior to the fire, why was that?” Nicholson asked Mueller.
“We simply hadn’t paid the right amount of attention to the detail of that form,” Mueller replied.
“Well, whose responsibility was that?” asked Nicholson, a senior partner in the law firm of Nicholson Revell LLP, which is representing Dorothy Carpenter’s family and several other former Marshall Square residents.
“Mine,” Mueller bluntly said.
However, Mueller disputed the claim that Marshall Square had a “shelter-in-place” policy for residents in the case of a fire alarm going off in the building.
In fact, Mueller continued to deny such a policy existed even after he was given a December 2014 memo written by Marshall Square’s property manager, Chris Bryde, that clearly stated, “When the alarm goes off, please do not panic. We have a state-of-the art monitoring system. Please stay in your apartment and wait for the announcement over the intercom.”
“No. It’s never been our policy to tell someone stay in your apartment and wait for an announcement,” Mueller testified.
But then Nicholson asked Mueller to read a paragraph from the resident handbook given to every person living at Marshall Square.
“In case of a fire, please stay in your apartment, unless that is where the fire is located,” Mueller said, reading from the handbook. “Be aware of the exits closest to your apartment and do not use the elevators. If you see smoke coming in under your door, stay in your apartment. Emergency response personnel will arrive and evacuate the building, if necessary.”
Even after reading the paragraph himself, Mueller denied that was Marshall Square’s policy.
“Well, isn’t that the shelter-in-place policy?” Nicholson asked.
“It’s not labeled as such, it was never referred to as such,” Mueller said. “I would refer to it as a defend-in-place.”
Nicholson specifically asked Mueller to describe the meaning of a “defend-in-place policy.”
“If they see smoke coming in under their door, stay in their apartment? Why would you call it ‘defend-in-place’?” Nicholson asked.
Mueller simply replied, “I would say that it’s a reference to allowing the construction of the building to do its job.”
As a result of such statements, several local attorneys involved in the civil cases against Residential Lifestyle Communities believe some of the staff and owners of the facility should be found criminally negligent.
“After reviewing the circumstances surrounding this case, we believe it’s just grossly negligent,” Nicholson said. “We are asking District Attorney Ashley Wright to do a criminal investigation into this fatal fire.”
While Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens ruled last week that the deadly fire at the Marshall Square retirement community was “accidental,” local attorney Jack Long said all that means is it wasn’t arson.
“It was an accident. Sure. Nobody intended to start the fire,” said Long, who is representing several former Marshall Square residents, including Charles and Margaret Moye. “We think it started with the air conditioner unit. We think they are going to find that it was a bad electrical connection on that particular unit and that caused the fire.”
Attorneys representing the former residents of Marshall Square have conducted 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.
In August 2014, a number of PTAC units by Goodman were recalled.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the power cords on some of the company’s air conditioning and heating units have the “potential to overheat, posing burn and fire hazards.”
But the cause of the fire is only one aspect of the investigation, Long said.
“There was a combination of errors here,” he said. “First of all, the fire department should have been dispatched immediately as opposed to having a delay of 17 minutes. Second of all, they should have never cut the fire alarms off. They should have let the alarm to continue to ring. And they should have had an evacuation plan that said when the fire alarm comes on, drop what you’re doing, get up and get out of the building. None of that happened.”
Long said it is clear that Resort Lifestyle Communities failed to follow state and national code guidelines for fire safety and evacuation plans.
Georgia regulations clearly state that structures with three or more stories and that occupy three or more families are required by law to have an evacuation plan posted, similar to the signs posted on the doors of hotels and dormitories.
As a result of such measures not being taken, Carpenter lost her life in the fire and 82-year-old Rhetta Cadle miraculously survived after being trapped in her third-floor apartment for almost seven hours.
Any individual, firm or corporation that violates the state’s fire safety laws can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, Long said.
“They had no evacuation plan here at Marshall Square or elsewhere,” Long said. “This company builds these apartments all over the country and they use the same plans and the same marketing and everything is identical. It is just like a cookie-cutter operation and apparently they have no safety evacuation plans anywhere.”
For residents who are paying approximately $4,000 a month to live in these luxury apartments, Long said Resort Lifestyle Communities should have made certain that these senior citizens were safe in their homes.
“I don’t think they gave a damn. This is all about money for them,” Long said of Resort Lifestyle Communities. “The day of the fire, the head honcho of the company flew in and flew out that same day on a private jet. Personally, I’m confident the district attorney and, I believe, the state fire marshal are going to look into what happened here.”
“The property manager, Chris Bryde, testified that he had no training in fire evacuation, no fire drills, nothing,” Nicholson said. “When the Marshall Square residents were calling down to the front desk after the fire alarm went off, the night concierge, Zack Freehof, testified that Bryde told him to tell everyone to stay in their rooms.”
Bryde stated that he did not recall giving Freeof such instructions.
Also, the fire alarm was manually silenced multiple times during the first 30 minutes of the fire that began just minutes after 3 a.m.
The staff waited 17 minutes after the initial fire alarm sounded to call 911 and alert the fire department.
Once Columbia County Fire Rescue arrived on the scene around 3:30 a.m., the sprinklers inside Marshall Square were also manually shut off by Bryde inside the building.
“Now, Bryde said the fire department told him to turn the sprinkler system off. Of course, the fire department denies that,” Nicholson said. “But three minutes after the fire department got there, it is turned off. And not only did Bryde admit to turning off the alarm multiple times, but he also directed one of the residents to turn off the alarm. So, the monitoring company doesn’t get the signal at 3:03 a.m. or, if they did, they didn’t do anything about it. Because from 3:03 to 3:20, nobody has called the fire department. The fire department gets there at 3:27 and the sprinklers are turned off at 3:30.”
Bryde testified that he went up to the billiard room twice that morning after the fire alarm sounded.
“There was so much smoke, they couldn’t even see in the room,” Nicholson said of Bryde and Freehof. “But they never went to everybody’s room and knocked on the doors to tell them to get out of there. Mrs. Carpenter’s room is right next door to the billiard room and Mrs. Cadle is right across from the billiard room. Mrs. Cadle didn’t wake up until 4 a.m. and when she woke up and opened the door, the fire was just billowing out. She couldn’t even see.”
For seven hours, Cadle was trapped in her bathroom because she followed the Marshall Square employees’ instructions to “shelter in place” and not evacuate the building, according to her lawsuit filed by Nicholson.
“As the fire continued to rage, and circumstances became more dire, (Cadle) attempted to escape,” the lawsuit states. “When she opened the door, she found blistering flames that prevented her safe passage and escape.”
Cadle felt she had no other choice but to lock herself in the bathroom as the building burned around her.
“Over that period, she covered herself in wet towels to counter the effects of the extreme heat and smoke caused by the fire,” the lawsuit states. “As she lay helpless in the bathroom, water began gushing into the bathroom through a hole in the ceiling caused by the fire. The gushing water would rise, recede, and then pour in again.”
Cadle’s life was being threatened by both fire and water.
Then, the fire caused the ceiling to collapse and the HVAC units came crashing down around her.
It wasn’t until firefighters heard Cadle’s cries for help that she was finally rescued.
Nicholson said it is baffling that no one chose to knock on the apartment doors of Cadle or Carpenter as soon as they saw smoke.
During his deposition of Bryde, Nicholson asked the property manager to describe the events of that morning.
On the morning of June 2, Bryde said he didn’t hear the fire alarm go off until 3:15 a.m., even though data from the system states the initial alarm sounded at 3:03 a.m.
Bryde said he quickly got dressed and raced to check out the fire alarm panel. It indicated there was smoke in the billiard room.
That’s when he ran into the night concierge, Zack Freehof, who stated that he had walked up to the third floor and discovered actual smoke in the billiard room.
Bryde said he went up to the third floor with Freehof and he, too, saw smoke.
“It was pretty thick. I could not see any flames,” Bryde said. “That’s when I told Zack to call 911. I went and got a fire extinguisher.”
He grabbed a fire extinguisher by the elevator, but when he returned to the billiard room it was so dark and filled with smoke that he couldn’t locate the origin of the fire. As a result, he rushed downstairs to grab a flashlight from his apartment, but he couldn’t find one.
Bryde then said he instructed Freehof to start evacuating the building.
“What did you expect Zack to do in the evacuation?” Nicholson asked.
“Knock on doors and tell residents to go downstairs. I didn’t tell him anything specifically,” Bryde testified.
Nicholson said Freeoff helped a few people out of the building, but then evacuated himself.
However, Bryde said he helped evacuate a number of residents on the second floor. Then, “nature called” and he went to his apartment for a bathroom break.
“As I was going out the front door, I saw my computer bag, my wife’s purse and my wallet, so I grabbed those, and my keys, and I took those outside, put them in my car, and I looked up at the fire, and the fire people were there,” Bryde said. “I don’t know if they had the hoses up or not. I don’t remember.”
Bryde said he saw flames coming from what he believed was the PTAC unit in the billiard room.
His wife, Suzanne, was given a list of all the residents at the facility and she was assigned to check off those residents who had made it out of the building safely.
“Were all the residents outside at the time you went outside?” Nicholson asked.
“Not all of them,” Bryde replied.
“So who was in charge of getting them out at that point?” Nicholson asked.
“The fire department,” Bryde stated.
When his wife told him that Carpenter and Cadle hadn’t made it out of the building, Bryde said he immediately notified the fire department.
“I went up to one of the firemen who I thought was in charge, after I got with Suzanne, and Dot and Rhetta were still missing in 328 and 329,” Bryde said. “I went up to him, he had a white shirt on, and I said, Dot and Rhetta, and I pointed up there to the core, in 329 and 328, are not out. You need to go up there and get them.”
Nicholson asked how the fire department responded to his concerns.
“Almost ignored me,” Bryde said. “I don’t remember their response. I was just — you know, I told them and I, in my mind, they’ve got ownership of that. I felt that they would take care of that. He acknowledged what I said.”
But Bryde said the firefighter didn’t really respond.
“That was the first time I told them,” Bryde said. “I told them two other times.”
In regards to the sprinkler system being turned off, Bryde insisted that was at the fire department’s request.
“A fireman told me to,” Bryde told Nicholson during his deposition.
However, Bryde said he didn’t recall which firefighter told him to do so.
“He told me he wanted to see the sprinkler system. And that was after I heard one of the fireman say, ‘We have it under control,’” Bryde said. “I went to show him the fire alarm system and the sprinkler system, he said that we need to shut it off. And I asked him, ‘You want me to turn off the sprinkler system?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ That’s why I turned it off. I was directed by the fire department to turn it off.”
Bryde said the firefighter gave no reason for shutting off the sprinkler system.
“Did you wonder why he wanted you to turn it off?” Nicholson asked.
“I heard them say, ‘We have it under control.’ In my mind flashed they have the fire put out,” Bryde said. “I don’t know. That’s why I asked the second time. I said, ‘Are you sure?’”
When asked who turned off the actual fire alarm that was alerting the residents, Bryde said he may have shut it off, “two or three times” because it is difficult to think clearly with the blaring alarm going off.
“It’s so loud,” Bryde said. “I think it, just for me, helps me think clearer.”
He also admitted telling one the Marshall Square residents to silence the alarm.
“So, you silenced it two or three (times)?” Nicholson asked. “And then (resident) Mickey Head silenced it one or two, maybe?”
“Yes, sir,” Bryde said.
He also testified that he continued to help evacuate about 15 people from the wings of the building, but he never returned to the core area where the fire had originated.
Once outside, Bryde said that he couldn’t believe how quickly the fire was spreading.
“It took them about six hours to get the fire out. So that’s a long period of time,” Bryde said. “There were a lot of firemen outside standing around. They had two cranes watering the fire and some hoses.”
Nicholson asked Bryde if he recalled when Cadle was finally rescued from the building.
“You bet I do,” Bryde said. “We saw the stretcher, one of the hospital — not stretcher, one of the carts coming out and it was upright, which if it was down, it would have been a body, possibly, but it was upright and we saw a person and we thought that was Rhetta.”
Bryde said everyone was in complete disbelief.
“I (already) told Rhetta’s son she didn’t make it. She didn’t make it out,” Bryde said, adding that he was relieved to be able to share with her son that she had actually survived.
Bryde said his response was, “Thank God. It’s a miracle.”
However, in Carpenter’s case, the news was heartbreaking that she had died in the fire.
“I actually told her children she didn’t make it,” Bryde said.
“And what was their response to you?” Nicholson asked.
“Hugs and cries,” Bryde said.
In his testimony, Bryde said he was confused as to why it took so long for the fire department to attempt to rescue Cadle and Carpenter.
“We felt that the fire department should put out the fire and should have rescued Dot and Rhetta,” Bryde said. “That’s their job. They’re professionals. They were there in time. You know, it started out small. You know, with the amount of people there, you know, it took them six hours to go into Rhetta’s apartment.”
When asked what he would have done differently, Bryde said he would have acted more aggressively.
“I think I would have gone in with that fire extinguisher and been blasting away, number one; I would never have turned off the sprinklers,” Bryde said. “I would have had the fire department do that.”
He also said, if he had a second chance, he would have gone back into the building and gotten Carpenter.
“You think you should have done that or you think the fire department should have done it?” Nicholson asked.
“I think the fire department should have done that,” Bryde said. “Another hindsight, I would have been screaming in their face, telling them to get Dot and Rhetta out in 328 and 329.”
Nicholson then asked the question that has been on many people’s minds after learning that both Freehof and Bryde raced past the apartments of Cadle and Carpenter several times that morning.
“Why didn’t you or Zack Freehof rescue Rhetta or Dot?” Nicholson said.
“I don’t know about Zack. Myself, I was — my first instinct was to put the fire out,” Bryde said. “And when I went back up it was thick enough and the department was in control that I didn’t — I went to places where I could be effective and help people.”
“So did you ever go to Rhetta’s door?” Nicholson asked.
“No, sir,” Bryde replied.
“Did you ever go to Dot Carpenter’s door?” Nicholson asked.
“No, sir,” Bryde said.
“And why not?” Nicholson asked.
“Too much smoke,” Bryde said. “And I do believe the fire department was up — was there in control.”
In the end, Nicholson asked Bryde what kind of impact the fire has had on him, personally.
“A lot of grief, sleepless nights,” Bryde said. “For me, every once in awhile I’ll wake up. It’s still going on. It was worse on Suzanne.”
Bryde said his wife was traumatized over that terrible night.
“I don’t believe Suzanne will be able to run or manage a property again,” Bryde said.
But local attorney Jack Long doesn’t accept the fact that some of the Marshall Square employees are trying to blame the Columbia County Fire Rescue for what happened that night.
“The fact that they are trying to blame the fire department is bullshit,” Long plainly said. “The Columbia County Fire Department told them they weren’t in compliance and that they needed a fire safety and evacuation plan. The folks at Marshall Square said, ‘We are going to get it worked out.’ That was back in January and they still didn’t have a plan in place on June 2. So, instead of fighting the fire, the fire department had to rescue people.”
Ironically, several employees of Marshall Square, including Bryde, testified that Kevin Tallman, the director of safety and maintenance at Resort Lifestyle Communities, was flying down to Augusta on the very day of the fire to implement a new fire safety and evacuation plan at Marshall Square.
Apparently, Tallman had been working with the Columbia County Fire Rescue for several months to develop a new, more appropriate plan.
“Kevin Tallman was — on June 2 — going to implement (an evacuation plan) at Marshall Square,” Bryde told Nicholson. “He was flying in to implement that.”
Shocked, Nicholson asks, “On the day of the fire?”
“On the day of the fire,” Bryde said.
“When was that decision made?” Nicholson asked.
“Before the fire,” Bryde said.
Nicholson then asked, “How do you know that?”
“Because when I called him, he said he was on his way and he had already told us that he was coming to train us on the new fire alarm system, evacuation system,” Bryde said.
“So you never did learn what the plan was supposed to be?” Nicholson asked.
“No,” Bryde responded.
Sitting in his office, Nicholson said that is either a terrible twist of fate or too big of a coincidence.
“They didn’t have anything in place in writing the day of the fire,” Nicholson said, shaking his head. “But they claim they were coming down to implement a plan on the day of the fire.”
Whichever is the case, Nicholson said Tallman’s testimony still showed major gaps in Resort Lifestyle Communities’ fire safety plans.
Last month, local attorney Adam King of Nicholson Revell, LLP questioned Tallman about the training that each of the managers receive at the company’s various locations regarding fire emergency.
“(The training) outlines our fire safety plan, and it talks about fire drills and what to do in the event of an emergency,” Tallman replied.
“Does it talk about evacuation strategy?” King asked.
“No, it does not,” Tallman said.
Surprised, King continues.
“So, even still, employees don’t receive training on evacuation strategies?” King asked.
“I was not, until very recently in this discovery process, made aware that we even needed to have an evacuation policy,” Tallman said. “In my process of developing this plan with (Columbia County Fire Marshal) Brian Clark and his review of this plan, never did he mention the requirement to have an evacuation policy, so we weren’t aware of that.”
King pauses again.
“It’s my understanding, based on your testimony, that you did not know than an evacuation policy was necessary until recently to this date?” King asked.
“Correct,” Tallman stated.
“Do you know when you learned that information?” King asked.
“Yesterday,” Tallman responded.
As Nicholson reviewed Tallman’s testimony in his office, he couldn’t help but shake his head.
“That deposition was taken on Feb. 29, just a few weeks ago,” Nicholson said, throwing up his hands. “And that’s their director of safety.”
For those reasons, both Nicholson and Long feel there needs to be a criminal investigation into the events surrounding the Marshall Square fire.
“This kind of behavior didn’t just happen at Marshall Square. It is company-wide disease,” Long said. “It needs to be investigated.”