First Place Writing – In-Depth


Built for Disaster

Apartment buildings can be death traps
Originally published in the University Daily Kansan

In the flaming orange hours after midnight on Oct. 7, 2005, many residents of Boardwalk Apartments had two ways to escape death: the bedroom window or the burning stairway beyond the front door.

Leigh McHatton, a KU senior living on the second floor, chose the stairway. She was left with third-degree burns to her hands and feet and second-degree burns to her face. Doctors said her reddish skin may look normal in about six years.

David Heller, a KU senior living on the third floor, chose the window. For 20 minutes he clung by his fingertips from a ledge as flames spewed from his apartment and covered his face in ash. He dropped onto the hood of a parked car, smashing it, and someone caught his head before it hit the pavement. He considers himself lucky.

A year after the Boardwalk fire killed three, injured 20 and left more than 80 homeless, KU sophomore Danny Doherty goes to bed each night in his third-floor apartment at Hawks Pointe III knowing that in case of fire, he has the same grim choices for escape as McHatton and Heller.

Doherty and countless other KU students live in apartment buildings that share some of the same safety problems as Boardwalk — inadequate exits, possible firewall damage, and a lack of sprinklers and central fire alarms that modern codes often require.

Other apartment buildings take advantage of a code loophole that allows them to build without having to install sprinklers and fire alarms or include a safe second exit.

For days after the 76-unit, block-long Boardwalk building burned, dazed, displaced residents paced beyond the yellow caution tape looking for answers to how and why it happened as firefighters dug through their charred belongings.

The questions were answered in part four days after the fire, when police arrested Jason A. Rose, a then-20-year-old Boardwalk resident with a troubled past, and charged him with starting the fire. His trial is scheduled for Feb. 6.

Other puzzles were not so easily solved: Why did Boardwalk go so quickly? How was it that when firefighters arrived at 1:25 a.m., only six minutes after the first 911 call was made, the building was already an inferno with several residents trapped inside?

The answer to that question has implications for people who live today in buildings with many of the same problems as Boardwalk.

An ignored warning

One part of that answer lies in a box in city storage, on a 36-year-old inspection record that ominously predicted the fates of McHatton, Heller and dozens of others trapped in the Boardwalk fire.

In October 1970, a city inspector inspecting the five-year-old Boardwalk complex, then called Ridglea Apartments, noted that if the front balcony stairways caught fire, the only way out would be through windows on the back side, two-thirds of which were two and three stories high.

“I personally feel these structures in no way provide a reasonable degree of safety to the occupants in case of a fire,” the inspector wrote.

The inspector noted that the buildings had three stories, though under city code they were classified as two stories because the first stories were halfway below ground. If the buildings had been classified as three stories, they would have been subject to more stringent building codes.

What happened after the inspection? Nothing. The buildings were up to code. Unsafe in the eyes of the inspector, perhaps, but up to code.

The Lawrence city manager did write a letter to the apartment owners, saying, “We do point out that the Building Code is to be considered minimal … I am sure you will agree with us that all apartments should provide a very minimum degree of safety for their residents, and we encourage you to take whatever steps you deem necessary to provide safety for the occupants.”

The problems the inspector noted, while recorded decades ago, are neither old nor uncommon to apartments where KU students live.

“In all my years,” said Tim Pinnick, building inspections supervisor for the Lawrence Department of Neighborhood Resources and an inspector of 29 years, “it’s not about what you can do. It’s about the money.”

A common, dangerous construction type

Eighty percent of KU students live off campus, and students naturally gravitate to housing where rent is cheap. This often means living in old apartment buildings built under outdated codes. It also means living in buildings built to fit a well-known loophole in the fire code. Boardwalk was built to fit that loophole, and so were many newer apartment buildings.

Danny Doherty, of De Soto, and his three roommates chose to live in Hawks Pointe III because monthly rent is affordable at $325 a person and it’s about as close as one can get to campus at 1145 Louisiana.

Unlike Boardwalk, Doherty’s building is not very old. It was built in 1986 under fire and building codes far ahead of those Boardwalk was built under.

However, the building shares some important traits with Boardwalk Apartments: It is a two-and-a-half story, outside-exit building, a common type of apartment building where KU students live. In case of fire, Doherty would have the same two choices as Boardwalk’s residents — brave the stairs, or drop from the third story.

In theory, city codes are designed to require extra safety measures for buildings that have floors too high for residents to safely jump out of a window — meaning three or more stories. For the top story of a three-story building, two safe exits are required — not including windows — while only one safe exit is required for many two-and-a-half-story buildings. To residents, buildings where the bottom level is halfway below ground may look like they have three stories, but according to the city, they only have two-and-a-half.

As Doherty recently looked down from his third-floor balcony at the parking lot about 20 feet below, he said he would rather take his chances on a flaming set of stairs, as McHatton did, than on jumping, as Heller did.

“I’ve never actually looked at the structure of it,” Doherty said. “Depending on how extreme the fire was, I would probably go through the fire rather than risk jumping out the window. It’s a pretty high jump from here.”

Other students, like Marie Clements, Stilwell senior, pay more for a new apartment with modern safety features. Clements pays $620 a month for her one-bedroom, third-floor apartment. She lives at Chase Court Apartments, 1942 Stewart Ave. — a three-story, outside-exit building built in 2002 that is required to have both a sprinkler system and a central fire alarm system.

In the late ’80s, Lawrence codes started requiring sprinkler and central fire alarm systems for all new apartment buildings with three or more stories or 16 or more units between firewalls. In the ’90s, the city a passed retroactive law requiring fire alarm systems in enclosed common areas for all existing apartment buildings of that type.

According to a decade-long study by the National Fire Protection Association, sprinklers decrease the number of apartment fires by 93 percent and civilian deaths by 81 percent.

But sprinklers cost $1 to $2 per square foot in new construction, according to the American Fire Sprinkler Association, which can mean tens of thousands of dollars in costs for builders. And a fire alarm system can cost $6,000 to $10,000 for a small three-story building.

With builders trying to maximize their space and build inexpensively, this translates to a slew of two-and-a-half story, outside-exit buildings with fewer safety restrictions, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Inspector Russell Brickell explained.

“We have a ton of these in town,” he said. “They build them that way on purpose just to avoid sprinkling buildings.”

However, neither Brickell nor city building inspectors could provide exact numbers of how many apartment buildings fit the code loophole.

George Waters, former owner of George Waters Management and longtime Lawrence apartment manager, said he was required only once to install sprinklers in an apartment building, in 1996 for an 11-unit, three-story building at 1712 Ohio. He said the sprinklers cost him more than $25,000.

“Sprinklers would definitely save more lives than anything else,” Waters said, “but it’s so impractical you can’t do it.”

Soon, however, sprinklers could be required. The Fire Code Board of Appeals is drafting an ordinance to adopt the 2006 International Fire Code, which, for the first time, would require sprinklers for all new apartment buildings. The city commission is expected to consider adopting the new code this month.

“But,” Brickell warned, “the old buildings will still be there.”

August Dettbarn, a residential appraiser for the Douglas County appraiser’s office, said the market generally dictates what safety features builders will pay for. If buyers or renters refused to live in apartments not equipped with sprinkler and fire alarm systems, owners would have to install them to stay competitive.

But if renters don’t demand such systems, cash-strapped owners won’t pay the extra expense. Dettbarn said tragedies such as the Boardwalk fire typically create a market demand for fire safety systems, but that demand lasts only a few months to a few years.

“Then it will fade from the radar screen,” he said.

A danger between the walls

Only one number mattered when Leigh McHatton moved into her Boardwalk apartment: $375 — pretty cheap for a single-person apartment, even if it was far from campus on the 500 block of Fireside Drive.

Another number she now wishes she would have considered: 1965 — the year the complex was built.

Aside from common-sense stuff — safe exits, sprinklers and fire alarm systems — one far less visible but equally important factor in fire safety is firewalls.

In 1965, firewalls, fire-resistant walls built within buildings to stop or slow fire from spreading from one part to another, were not tightly regulated by the city. Today builders can build no more than 16 apartment units between firewalls without being required to install sprinklers, and firewalls have to be certified to withstand fire for two to four hours. In addition, each unit must be separated by construction that can withstand fire for one hour.

“What now we consider standard and you have to do for safety reasons, many years ago you didn’t have to do,” explained Dennis McCreary, leader of architectural and engineering services with the International Code Council.

Large buildings made of non-fire-resistive wood such as Boardwalk were required to have firewalls, but the firewalls were not always as strong then and builders could build more units between them.

“If it would have had a two-hour separation wall between buildings, it would’ve been OK,” Brickell, the fire inspector, said of the Boardwalk fire.

But even if a building was built with sturdy firewalls, it’s a safe bet that the older a building is, the more ravaged its firewalls have become by anyone who has done utility work to the building.

“As soon as we’re done inspecting, the cable guy comes and knocks a hole in the firewall,” said Cortez Lawrence, director of the National Fire Programs Division of the U.S. Fire Administration.

The aftermath

October 10, 2005.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire and Medical Chief Mark Bradford held a press conference across the noisy street from where investigators scoured the rubble. Questions centered on two words: How? Why?

The fire spread rapidly, Bradford explained, eating through time-ravaged firewalls and roaring over oxygen-fed outdoor stairways as residents slept soundlessly.

The 40-year-old building was built under outdated codes that didn’t ensure an adequate degree of safety, he told a swarm of cameras and microphones. And its construction problems were common to Lawrence apartments.

“As long as we continue to build buildings of this fashion,” he said, “it will probably continue to result in this type of damage and loss of life.”

As for McHatton, of Winona, and Heller, of Manhattan, they found newer apartments with safer exits, and finished their senior years. McHatton got new cats, Simon and George, to replace the two who died in the fire, Frankie and Joey. Heller, who also lost everything, got new clothes.

“Hopefully this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” McHatton said. “I certainly wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”