Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens issued a ruling Thursday on the deadly fire at the Marshall Square retirement community in Columbia County.
“A state fire investigator with my office has determined that the cause of the fire was accidental,” Hudgens said in a press release. “The origin of the fire was in the area of an air conditioning unit located in a third floor billiard room.”
As a result of the June 2015 fire at Marshall Square, 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.
While the cause of the fire has been ruled accidental, the investigation remains open pending additional examination of the air conditioning unit, Hudgens stated.
As the investigation into the fire continues, so do the lawsuits filed in the matter.
About nine months after the devastating fire that destroyed Marshall Square, several local attorneys, including Sam Nicholson and Jack Long, are determined to hold those responsible for this terrible tragedy accountable.
Both attorneys are looking into the sequence of events that occurred in the early morning hours of June 2.
As the fire began to intensify and rapidly spread behind the walls of the third-floor billiard room in the Marshall Square retirement community around 3 a.m., a deadly sequence of events occurred, according to local attorney Sam Nicholson, a senior partner in the law firm of Nicholson Revell LLP.
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.
Once Columbia County Fire Rescue arrived on the scene around 3:30 a.m., the sprinklers insider Marshall Square were also manually shut off by someone inside the building.
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.”
Nicholson has also 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.”