West Chester, PA – A woman whose parents burned to death in a nursing home fire claims in court that a series of blunders by multiple parties resulted in a preventable catastrophe. 

The suit seeks to hold responsible the nursing home and its corporate owner, Barclay Friends and the Kendal Corporation; the sprinkler company, SimplexGrinnell (now Johnson Controls); the water utility and its parent company, Aqua Pennsylvania and Aqua America; and several engineering firms that designed and built the facility back in the 1990s, Marco Protection Systems, Kohn Engineering, C. Raymond Davis & Sons, and Daniel H. Socket, Structural Engineers.

Represented by James J. McEldrew, III, Daniel Purtell and Ian M. Bryson, attorneys with McEldrew Young, Kathryn McGill filed suit in Philadelphia after the Nov. 21 fire at the Barclay Friends Senior Living Community claimed the lives of both of her parents, Thomas and Delores Parker.

There were a combination of design and maintenance errors listed in the 48-page complaint that allowed the fire to rage out of control and kill four residents, injure more than 27 others, and displace over 133.

McGill’s complaint alleges that the fire started because the nursing home allowed rampant cigarette smoking in violation of its own non-smoking policy. An employee, who was smoking on an outdoor patio, discarded a lit cigarette into a trashcan containing combustible materials that was sitting close to the building’s exterior wall. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) confirmed that the fire began on the building’s back patio, climbed an outside wall, set the roof ablaze and spread throughout the building’s interior

The complaint states that the fire would not have been able to enter the building had contractors involved in the original construction not deviated from the architectural blueprints. The design plans indicate that ½-inch fire-retardant panels, known as gypsum board, should have been installed under the building’s vinyl siding. Fire rated gypsum drywall is chemically combined with water, glass fiber reinforcement or other additives, which greatly contribute to its effectiveness as a fire resistive barrier and help it hold up longer to fire exposure. But photographs attached to the court filing show the gypsum panels were omitted from the final construction. Had contractors followed the designs, the outside wall would have been “properly rated to resist the spread of fire from the patio to the building’s interior,” affording the Parkers additional time to get to safety.

Further, the suit alleges that the facility’s fire alarm system had not been set to the proper decibel level required by the building codes. Once the fire started, the alarm was not loud enough for the Parkers to hear it in their bedrooms and appreciate that their lives were in danger.

When flames breached the interior of the structure, the increase in temperature should have automatically triggered the sprinklers. Sometime before the fire started, however, the valve that controlled the flow of water to the building’s 286 sprinkler heads had been closed.

The sprinkler valve was equipped with a tamper switch designed to sound an alarm when the valve was turned even the slightest from open to closed. Video footage of fire investigators hired by Barclay Friends to test the tamper switch revealed that it was malfunctioning at the time of the incident. When the valve was closed, the tamper switch registered it as being open—so no one was notified that the building was unprotected. Moreover, the sprinkler valve was housed in a locked mechanical room in the basement, making it inaccessible if someone wanted to reopen the valve.

Ms. McGill also states that when investigators removed the sprinkler pipes for testing, they discovered that the pipes were clogged with sediment and debris, “further demonstrating the building’s fire protection system had been improperly inspected and/or maintained.”

The complaint lists a host of design defects that Ms. McGill argues would have rendered the sprinkler system non-operational, even if the water was on. For example, the sprinkler blueprints contain typos, conflicting numbers, and miscalculations, which Ms. McGill claims resulted in a sprinkler system that was unequipped to protect the building.

Firefighters were also unable to get adequate water to battle the 50-foot-high blaze. Audio recordings of first responder radios indicate that firefighters struggled to get adequate water pressure for their hoses from the hydrants at the scene. “We need more water pressure, if you can …We are not really getting anything … Totally losing water pressure here … There is no water pressure at all at the scene,” firefighters can be heard saying. Ultimately, they had to pump water from a nearby hospital over 1200 feet away, resulting in significant delay.

Just a few weeks before the fire, the local water utility, Aqua, announced plans to replace the water main that services the fire hydrants at Barclay Friends in an effort to “improve firefighting capabilities in the area.” Aqua spokesperson, Donna Alston, stated “[l]arger mains carry more water, which increases water flow. Greater flow satisfies greater demands, including those for firefighting.” In 2016, Aqua, spent $234 million replacing aging water infrastructure in areas near Barclay Friends; and in April 2017, Aqua announced plans for an additional $292 million in infrastructure improvements throughout that year. At the time of the fire, the ailing infrastructure serving the Barclay Friends facility had yet to be replaced.

As the fire roared through the facility, unimpeded by either sprinklers or firefighter hoses, nursing home staff failed to evacuate the Parkers, who suffered from advanced dementia. The elevators that the Parkers typically used were non-operational during the fire, and without help, they would have been unable to find the stairs or descend them quickly enough to escape.

Ms. McGill brings survival claims on behalf of her mother and father for the physical and emotional pain they suffered from the start of the fire to the moment of their deaths. She also asserts wrongful death claims on behalf of herself and her two sisters, Barbara McDonald and Marilyn Parker, for emotional and economic losses they have endured in losing their parents.

In a statement released on behalf of the Parker family, McEldrew Young said:

The loss their family suffered as a result of this catastrophe cannot be put into words. Unfortunately, it could have been avoided but for the failure of the facility to conform to basic life and fire safety requirements. Rest assured we will hold all those responsible for this grave injustice accountable.

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