Fire marshal's report reveals images of Centreville senior apartment fire

Fire marshal's report reveals images of Centreville senior apartment fire (Fairfax County Fire Marshal Report)

For the first time since she fled her burning Forest Glen apartment in May, 77-year-old Mildred Womack saw the damage in a way she never expected.

“Oh goodness, that’s awful, oh that’s awful,” she said quietly, staring at a computer screen. “It was the worst I ever seen, the worst I ever been in.”

The still photos Womack was scrolling through are part of a Fairfax County Fire Marshal’s report obtained by the ABC7 News I-Team.

The release of those images, and a detailed narrative of the post-fire investigation, came after a Freedom of Information Act request.

The report describes a massive fire that caused more than $10 million in damage, to the building and the property inside; an estimated 170 people, mostly seniors and caregivers, were displaced.

“The majority of the roof system for the entire building had been consumed by the fire or collapsed,” wrote Fairfax Fire & Rescue Lieutenant Jeff Carney. “The roof sections remaining had heavy fire damage noted to the sheathing. Remaining wood truss components were heavily charred.”

Within days of the May 2nd fire, investigators announced the cause was improper disposal of smoking materials.

But this new report reveals a startling discovery: that exterior or outside fire sprinklers were not working outside apartment 312, where the massive blaze began.

“Sprinkler activation was reported on the third and fourth floor interior sprinkler heads,” the narrative reads. “No sprinkler activation was reported to any exterior heads of the (affected) apartment’s balconies.”

That news stunned Barbara Vincent, Womack’s niece, and a building inspector for Fairfax County Public Schools for 20 years.

She says there’s no excuse for the sprinklers to not activate, and she pointed the finger at Forest Glen management.

“I am very upset. I am furious that they would not put (tenants) safety first,” Vincent declares. “To see a senior citizen home go up in smoke like this, because of a water sprinkler system that’s not working outside, it devastates me.”

The Fire Marshal’s report identifies a discarded cigarette as the ignition source for the blaze, and potting soil, as the material that caught fire.

“It is my opinion this fire originated on the balcony of apartment 312, specifically the right side of the exterior door,” Carney wrote. “The most likely cause of the fire is discarded smoking materials in a flower pot.”

Photos included in the report appear to show dozens of cigarette butts scattered on the balcony of apartment 312, along with a cigar butt clumped together with what appears to be melted plastic.

“The environmental conditions on this day were a contributing factor to the severity of the fire,” Carney wrote. “Failure of the sprinkler heads over the balconies to activate was an additional contributing factor.”

In a separate statement, Fairfax Fire & Rescue officials say wet pipe sprinklers on the inside of the building “did activate as designed and protected occupants as they evacuated from the building.”

Investigators say meanwhile, the fire from the flower pot spread to the vinyl siding of the building, moving up to a large attic space, which did not have sprinklers.

When the Forest Glen complex was constructed in 1995, building codes did not yet require the installation of attic sprinklers for multi-family senior residences.

But the report also lists dozens of complaints dating back to 2009, which include sprinkler issues, heating and air conditioning problems, and unsanitary living conditions.

For example, an April 2012 inspection line-item summary notes “structure unsafe, floors weak, extinguishers expired, fire doors don’t close, leaking pipes, etc.”

Another report in October of that year found “structure unsafe, no emergency lighting, no alarms, no emergency maps.”

The complaints include an April 2016 report, in which inspectors found a faulty sprinkler head in a boiler room.

When the Fire Marshal’s Office inspected the complex in July of 2017, they found four violations with the sprinkler system had been cleared.

Fire officials say since the May 2nd Forest Glen fire, the department has made a county-wide inventory, and has begun inspecting 185 buildings that have exterior sprinklers.

But months after that massive fire, it remains unclear why those exterior sprinklers at Forest Glen didn’t activate.

“The sprinklers weren’t working, I think somebody need to be held accountable for what’s happened to people,” Womack says. “I mean over fifty years we’ve been in apartments everything we had, we’d never replace all the stuff that’s gone.”

She and her family wonder why anyone was permitted to smoke at the complex in the first place; they believe the building was a smoke-free facility.

Now Womack and her husband Wilfred are living in an apartment in Manassas.

Virtually all their possessions—furniture, clothing, documents, family photos, and other precious heirlooms, are gone.

Vincent is just glad the couple escaped from the flames alive.

“I was watching TV and I saw the news that Forest Glen apartments was on fire,” she says. “The only thing that we could do is pray because we didn’t know if they were in the building, if they were out of the building.”

The I-Team reached out several times this week to Eagle Point Companies, which manages Forest Glen, for comment on the Fire Marshal’s report.

Spokesperson Patrick Dorton did not answer any specific questions, but instead released a statement, which says in part:

“We are working with our insurance company, which is in communication with the fire department, outside vendors, including the sprinkler vendors, and other experts in determining the facts around the fire. As you know, we have also been working with all the residents on an expense reimbursement process.”

The Womacks say they will likely stay in their Manassas apartment for about a year.

After that, they’re not sure what they’ll do; their renter’s insurance covers only a fraction of their expenses.

Vincent says her aunt and uncle deserve better, after being forced to flee a fire that virtually took everything but their lives.

“Fifty years of marriage, you know they have nothing, nothing at all,” she says. “These people had to start with just the clothes on their backs, a walker and a cane. Whatever little bit of renter’s insurance they have, it doesn’t compare to what they have lost.”

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