Caryl Pender can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t spent the night with her parents, Charles and Margaret Moye, that fateful day last June.
That one simple decision likely saved her parents’ lives.
Pender was having a typical evening at home, when her 94-year-old father called to say that he was feeling a little under the weather.
“Daddy said, ‘Caryl, can you come over and spend the night? I’m sick and if I had to go to the hospital or something, I would need you to take me,’” Pender said. “So, I said, ‘Sure. I’ll be on over soon.’ And I grabbed my things and went.”
Pender drove to her parents’ two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of Marshall Square retirement community in Evans on the evening of June 1.
Since her father was feeling ill, Pender decided she would stay up all night, just in case she needed to check on him.
She was relaxing in her parent’s spare bedroom, fiddling around on her computer, when suddenly a piercing alarm began to sound just after 3 a.m.
Only a few seconds later, the alarm suddenly cut off.
“It was very, very loud and I knew something was not right,” Pender recalled. “So I immediately jumped up and ran into to my father’s room and said, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Get up! It’s a fire! That’s the fire alarm!’”
But her father urged her not to be concerned.
“He said, ‘No. It’s not a fire alarm,’” Pender said. “But, just about that time, it came on again. And, just as quickly, it went back off.”
Pender looked up at the sprinkler heads in her parents’ apartment, but they weren’t going off.
Regardless, she urged her parents to get up and they all walked into living room.
“I said, ‘That’s the fire alarm, Daddy. We have got to get out of this building!’” Pender said, but her father was still reluctant. “He said, ‘No. They have instructed us, in the case of a fire, to stay in the room.’”
Pender could hardly believe what she was hearing.
“I said, ‘They said, what? No. We are not staying in the room! We are getting out of here!’” Pender told her parents.
But her father insisted that everything was fine and the building was safe.
“He said, ‘No. We’ve had false alarms before and, even if it was a real fire, they told us that they had state-of-the-art equipment and we are to stay in our rooms,’” Pender recalled her father saying. “He told me it might not be a real fire.”
Instead of continuing to debate what to do with her father, Pender decided to call down to the front desk to find out whether there was an actual emergency in the building.
“So, I phoned downstairs and a man named Chris answered the phone,” Pender said, referring to Chris Bryde, the property manager of Marshall Square at the time. “I asked, ‘Is this a real fire?’”
Instead of immediately answering her question, Pender said that Bryde had the audacity to ask, “Who is this?”
At that point, Pender began to fully realize the seriousness of the situation.
To this day, Pender still can’t believe those were the instructions she was given by the manager of the retirement community.
“I told him, ‘I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid!’” Pender said. “I hung the phone up and I told my mother and father to get dressed because they were in their nightclothes.”
Both of her parents are in their 90s, so Pender said it took several minutes for them to get dressed and prepare to evacuate the building.
“I told Mother to grab her handbag and for Daddy to grab his wallet,” Pender said, adding that she quickly grabbed her purse as well. “Both of them had walkers that had the four wheels and a seat, so I had to fold those walkers up and fling both of them over my shoulder.”
While the walkers were heavy, Pender knew her parents would need them in order to evacuate the building.
They hurried out of her parents’ apartment and noticed the double doors down the hallway were closed.
She immediately feared for their lives.
“I remembered that Daddy one time told me that in the case of a fire, those double doors would close. I looked and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the double doors are closed! It is a real fire!’” Pender said. “I was wondering whether the fire was on the other side of those doors, but I didn’t know any other way to get out. So I opened the double doors and told my parents that we couldn’t take the elevator.”
Instead, Pender and her elderly parents were forced to use the stairs.
“It was three flights down,” Pender remembers, shaking her head. “I carried the walkers and helped them get down those steps. It was no easy task.”
Finally, when they reached the first floor, Pender opened a side door that residents can use with their keycards to exit the building and helped her parents to the far end of the sidewalk.
As she began unfolding the walkers so her parents could sit down, Pender looked over her right shoulder and saw heavy smoke coming out of the billiard room on the third floor.
She knew it was the billiard room because the windows were different from the rest of the building.
Pender immediately told her parents not to move, that she would return as quickly as possible.
“I said, ‘Daddy, I’ve got to go back in and get those people. You stay right here! You and Mother, do not move an inch! I will be right back!’” Pender said. “I realized that if the staff at Marshall Square told those residents the same thing they told me and Daddy, those poor people would still be waiting in their rooms and the building was on fire.”
Pender knew she had to get as many people out of the building as possible.
There was no time to waste.
“So I ran back in and started yelling, ‘Fire! Fire! Get out of the building! Get out of the building!’” she said. “I encountered a group of people that were standing in the hall and discussing whether they should get out or not, because they had been told to stay in the building. And so I told them, ‘Get out of the building! It is a real fire!’”
But Pender quickly realized that many of the Marshall Square residents had difficulty walking.
“I started gently nudging them out the door and then one lady told me that she left her walker and couldn’t walk, so I put her arm over my shoulder and kind of carried her out,” Pender said. “I found a chair on somebody’s patio and grabbed it and sat her in that.”
As Pender began trying to gather the group of residents at the end of the sidewalk next to her parents, she saw the first fire truck pull up.
“I watched them as they stabilized the truck as more residents exited the building,” Pender said. “By that time, I don’t know how many of us were on the sidewalk. It was a good many by then, but I noticed nobody was counting. Nobody was checking to see who made it out.”
Columbia County Battalion Chief Jeremy Wallen told the Metro Spirit following the fire on June 2 that a resident living on the third floor of Marshall Square was the first to notify Columbia County’s 9-1-1 Communications Center of the fire around 3:20 a.m.
“The fire was larger than it appeared on arrival because it was throughout the attic already,” Wallen explained. “It takes time for that to come out and be actually visible. But there was much more fire from the very beginning than it appeared from the outside.”
Upon arrival, Wallen said the fire department immediately began assisting with the evacuation of the Marshall Square residents with the help of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and Gold Cross EMS.
“The first alarm (at about 3:22 a.m.) brought three pumps and one aerial truck and some support vehicles,” Wallen said. “When they discovered the fire, they pulled the second alarm that sent two additional pumps and the next ladder truck. That was approximately 25 minutes later after the initial arrival.”
Wallen explained that the department also began taking a headcount of those residents who had evacuated the building.
“We also began staging an accountability system, to determine how many persons had come out of the building,” he said. “I believe most of the residents were out within the first hour.”
As the Marshall Square residents watched the firefighters continue to search the building, Pender said a sheriff’s deputy asked the group of elderly residents to move further away from the fire.
With their walkers and wheelchairs, Pender said the residents slowly moved into the parking lot, facing the center of the building.
“When we got over there, it was evident to me that these people had never been through a fire drill because nobody knew where to meet,” she said. “Usually you are told a central meeting spot. Nobody knew where to meet. So you had a little group of people over here and a little group of people over there. It was very disorganized.”
Finally, she noticed a woman attempting to count the number of residents who had escaped the building.
“I noticed the lady, who I believed worked there, and she had a list of the residents and their apartment numbers,” Pender said. “I walked up to her and told her I was Caryl Pender and that I had gotten out safely. She started looking for my name on the list and I told her, ‘No. No. I’m not a resident. I’m a visitor. I’m Charles and Margaret Moye’s daughter. And they are both out safely.’”
While the woman checked her parents’ names off the list, Pender said she couldn’t help but notice the woman was clearly unnerved.
“Her hands were visibly shaking,” Pender said. “I hate to say this, but it was like she was kind of losing it.”
As a retired state probation officer, Pender knew the importance of trying to stay calm and think clearly in an emergency situation, so she attempted to assist the woman.
“I looked at the list and I looked at some of the people standing outside,” Pender said. “I knew some of the residents and I could tell her the ones that I saw who made it out and the ones that I didn’t see.”
In the meantime, Pender said the residents wouldn’t stay all together in one group. Instead, they kept walking off to see what was going on with the fire.
Tension began to mount as the fire increased and the residents began to realize that their apartments were becoming engulfed in flames.
“I was in utter disbelief,” she said. “The fire was getting out of hand and these poor people were watching all of their worldly possessions burning up. They were crying and extremely distraught.”
Once again, a deputy approached the group and told them to move further away from the building and onto the roadway.
Pender will never forget trying to help this huge group of elderly residents maneuver over the curbs, in between the shrubs and through the thick grass.
“It was June and the grass was so soggy,” Pender said. “You could barely get the walkers and wheelchairs through it.”
As she helped push the residents through the grass, she began to fully realize that the Nebraska-based company, Resort Lifestyle Communities, which owned Marshall Square, perhaps created a false image of its “all-inclusive, resort-style community.”
“All of these people are in their 70s, 80s and 90s. I did not know of a single one there that was in their 60s, much less their 50s,” Pender said. “These people are elderly. They are not able-bodied individuals, by any stretch of the imagination.”
When the group finally moved to the new designated location, the residents turned to see huge flames leaping from the building.
The residents were devastated, Pender said.
“I tried to console them, but a lot of them I didn’t even know,” she said. “There wasn’t much I could do except gently pat their arm and say, ‘We are out alive.’”
But, in the back of her mind, Pender knew not everyone had managed to make it out safely.
“I realized there were some people not accounted for, but I didn’t tell the residents who were sitting there watching the fire intensify,” Pender said. “That would have been too much for them to handle.”
The fire continued to spread and it quickly became clear that the firefighters at the scene were losing the battle, she said.
“I immediately knew that the fire was too big for the firefighters to handle,” Pender said. “Clearly, they needed more aerial trucks and more firefighters during the first hour of the fire.”
While Pender says she appreciated the firefighters’ efforts during the early morning hours of the Marshall Square fire, they clearly did not have enough equipment and manpower to handle the situation.
“It was like watching me try to put my house out with a garden hose,” she said. “I was in total disbelief. I just don’t know why they didn’t call in Richmond County to come to the fire itself with everything that they had. To me, that was a five-alarm fire and Columbia County was simply overwhelmed by it.”
Columbia County could have had another aerial ladder truck on the scene shortly after the fire started if officials had contacted Richmond County, the city of Hephzibah or Fort Gordon and requested mutual aid.
According to Cathy Plaster, the assistant director for Richmond County’s 9-1-1 Emergency Services, Richmond County received the mutual aid call from Columbia County at 6:13 a.m. on the day of the fire.
That’s about three full hours after Columbia County was first made aware of the fire at Marshall Square.
By 5 a.m., the fire had destroyed most of the central part of the three-story building valued at more than $25 million and was rapidly spreading to the eastern wing.
Wallen said Columbia County requested Richmond County’s assistance around 6:15 a.m. to cover some of the fire stations that were unmanned due to the fact that those crews were sent to the Marshall Square fire.
“Our incident commanders felt like where we needed Richmond County’s assistance was to run the normal day-to-day calls that we weren’t potentially able to cover from our fire stations,” Wallen told the Metro Spirit last year. “That is where the incident commanders felt that they needed them.”
Columbia County Fire Chief Doug Cooper told the Metro Spirit after the fire that he completely stood by the actions of his department.
“At the fire, I had six pumps and two ladder trucks and 104 firefighters. I had about everything that I needed over there,” Cooper said. “I needed those stations covered because we knew that (the Marshall Square fire) was going to be a long, drawn out thing and there were still going to be other emergencies. We had to account for that.”
As far as any concerns over whether the department could have used another aerial firetruck at the Marshall Square fire, Cooper said he felt that his department had all the equipment and manpower it needed.
“It was pretty much on fire all over the attic when we got there,” Cooper said. “And, actually, we had every available water source in the area utilized.”
Pender simply doesn’t understand the fire chief’s logic in that situation.
“By the time they called Richmond County, the whole building was gone,” she said. “I saw when the fire first broke through that roof. I’ve never seen flames that high. They should have gone ahead and called for help realizing that there were people still inside the building and, if you were going to even try to save the structure, you were going to need some assistance.”
She also said she never saw 100 firefighters battling the fire when she was at the scene.
“When they took me off in an ambulance after 6 a.m., I did not see 100 firefighters,” she said. “Now, I wasn’t counting. But I know 100 when I see it.”
Pender’s father also couldn’t help but comment on what he saw that day.
“After the people were brought out by the fire department, the firefighters might as well have gone home and saved the water because they didn’t have enough manpower or equipment,” Charles Moye said.
The entire incident was both heartbreaking and infuriating to watch, Pender said.
“Everything was going wrong,” she said. “They were absolutely unable to contain the fire. And you should have seen the look on the residents’ faces. These people all moved into Marshall Square thinking that this was the last place they would live in their lifetime. So they had pared down everything to their most valuable, most precious, most meaningful items. There it was burning up. They were left with the clothes on their backs.”
That would tough for anyone, but for elderly residents in their 80s and 90s, it was tragic, she said.
“Those are their memories,” Pender said. “If you are younger, you have more lifetime to make more memories. They don’t have time to recover.”
Of course, nothing was more devastating for the residents of Marshall Square than when they learned 91-year-old Dorothy Carpenter had lost her life in the fire.
Everyone knew she shouldn’t have died that morning, Pender said.
The residents feared they had lost another friend after hearing that 82-year-old Rhetta Cadle was still missing and presumed dead.
Her family had already begun mourning the fact that they probably lost their beloved mother, but something miraculous happened.
Cadle somehow managed to survived.
“That was a gift from God,” Pender said. “I’m a religious person and I truly believe only God saved Mrs. Cadle because when you look at those flames, you have to ask: How in the world did that woman survive? Everybody couldn’t believe it.”
For seven hours, Cadle had been 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 local attorney Sam Nicholson last month.
“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.
“If you are not a believer in God, and you saw Mrs. Cadle come out of that building, you’re a believer now,” Pender said.
It’s now been eight months since the devastating fire that destroyed the Marshall Square retirement community and Pender says she is tired of waiting around for an explanation as to what went wrong and what needs to be changed.
Over the past few weeks, she has begun contacting both state and local officials suggesting ways to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again in this area.
She has sent letters to Georgia House representatives Jodi Lott, Barry Fleming and Barbara Sims, as well as state senators Bill Jackson and Jesse Stone, asking them to introduce legislation that would strengthen the state’s building codes for structures marketed to age-restricted residents.
Pender has great concerns about the fact that the Marshall Square facility was approved as basically an apartment complex under the county’s current building codes.
“The owners of Marshall Square kept saying the building had state-of-the-art fire protection, but, in actuality, I think they built it to the normal building codes for any apartment complex,” Pender said. “I feel like, in the future, Columbia County needs to tighten up its codes if a company is going to market to people 55 and older. I believe the building should be built to the codes of an assisted living facility.”
When Pender also learned that Columbia County Deputy Fire Marshal Jerry Baldwin had instructed Chris Bryde, the manager of Marshall Square, last January that the complex’s “shelter in place” policy violated the state fire code, that brought about more questions.
“When the fire marshal told the management that they couldn’t tell the people to stay in the rooms, did they ever follow up on it?” Pender asked. “Did they get an actual plan for a fire and see what the management changed it to?”
These are the exact questions that Pender believes Columbia County commissioners should be asking and making sure they get answers.
“I am shocked that the Columbia County commissioners have not looked into this more,” Pender said. “They at least need to tell the public that they may need more aerial trucks, more firefighters and tighten up the building codes because it is only a matter of time before something tragic will happen again.”
As a result of the fire, her parents have filed a class action lawsuit against the owners of Marshall Square and some of its staff — including the property manager, Chris Bryde, and the night concierge, Zack Freehof. The lawsuit, filed by local attorney Jack Long, also includes Cameron General Contractors Inc. and Goodman Company L.P.
“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,” the lawsuit states, “but allowed the clean-up crews to take items that were irreplaceable, including jewelry that (the Moyes) had in their own safe.”
Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Carl Brown appointed local attorney Freddie Sanders to help recover property of former Marshall Square residents, Pender said.
Sanders was also given the authority to investigate the disposition of any of the residents’ property, she said.
“Freddie Sanders is going to be investigating all the missing items and I think he’ll do a good job. He used to be the police chief,” Pender said. “But the fact that people took items from these residents like jewelry and furniture is just another nightmare.”
Ever since the fire, Pender said her parents are still struggling to find comfort in their new home.
“I definitely think that it has had an impact on my mother,” Pender said, adding that her mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. “She has not done as well since the fire because, of course, when you move, things are unknown to you again.”
However, Pender’s mother is extremely grateful that she survived the fire and her daughter was there to help evacuate some of the residents from the building.
“My mother says that I saved them,” Pender quietly said, smiling. “I’m just glad I was there.”
As for her father, Pender said he is still trying to keep his sense of humor about the whole, terrible ordeal.
“My dad says, ‘It has aged me 10 years!’” Pender said, chuckling. “Of course, he is 94 years old.”
But regardless of the stress that the fire has caused her and her parents, Pender is committed to demanding answers for all the residents of Marshall Square so such a tragedy will never happen again.
“For these residents to have to fight to get the Columbia County commissioners to change some of their ways, it is just too much for these elderly people,” Pender said. “So I’m going to get these elected officials to step up to the plate now. It has been long enough. These residents want answers and they need them sooner rather than later.”