‘Outrageous': Sprinkler Valve Was Off During 2017 Inferno That Killed 4 at Senior Home as Lawsuits Move Forward

Civil lawsuits against the corporation whose subsidiary was contracted to oversee the facility's fire prevention and suppression systems are moving forward.

What to Know

  • Four residents of Barclay Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester died in a November 2017 fire.
  • The ATF determined in its final report Thursday that sprinklers did not come on during the blaze because the valve had been turned off.
  • Lawsuits against Barclay have been settled, but lawsuits remain in early stages against the contractor in charge of the sprinkler system.

A federal investigation into the 2017 inferno that killed four people at a senior living community in Chester County, Pennsylvania, concluded that the main sprinkler valve to the facility was turned off.

The cause of the blaze at Barclay Friends in West Chester was ruled "undetermined" in the final report by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosions released Thursday. 

An ATF spokeswoman said the agency and local authorities have effectively closed the case.

"When investigators arrived on scene, the main sprinkler valve was found in the off position," the ATF report said. "Despite extensive testing and interviews, investigators were unable to determine definitively when the valve was turned off.  Based on the totality of the investigation, it is the belief of the investigators that it was off during the fire."

Civil lawsuits, however, against the corporation whose subsidiary was contracted to oversee the facility's fire prevention and suppression systems are still ongoing, according to a lawyer representing one of the victim's families.

The four people who died are Mildred Gadde, Theresa Malloy, Delores Parker and Thomas Parker.

Attorney Andrew Duffy, who represents Malloy's estate, told NBC10 that the lawsuit against the corporation Johnson Controls is still in its early stages. But he was blunt in his assessment of what occurred leading up to the fire.

"It's outrageous that that valve was closed. It took away these people's last hope of survival," Duffy, of the Philadelphia law firm Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky, said. "We plan to aggressively pursue the case against Johnson Controls."

Johnson Controls is a multi-national conglomerate that bought Tyco Simplex-Grinnell, which Duffy said was the contractor for Barclay Friends. The company describes itself as "the world leader in fire protection, security, HVAC, building controls and energy storage."

Duffy said the lawsuit is still in the discovery phase and it remains unknown at this time why the valve would have been closed. Furthermore, he said, a tamper switch that should have detected the valve closure also failed.

A spokesman for Milkwauke-Wisc.-based Johnson Controls said he had not seen the ATF report, and would not comment on the lawsuit.

Duffy said settlements have been reached with Barclay Friends. The terms of the settlements are confidential, he said.

The fire erupted shortly before 11 p.m. Nov. 16 as most of the 137 residents of the facility were sleeping. The blaze started in the back of one of the Woolman building, ripped through the center and all the way to the ceiling, creating a "raging inferno," Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan said at the time.

Flames tore through the senior living community's personal care wing with such speed that some of the nearly 400 first responders rushed into the building without securing their breathing equipment.

Several firefighters described their helmets melting and cracking from the intense heat.

[PHOTOS]Seniors Flee Inferno at West Chester Senior Living Community

Most of the residents were bedridden or in wheelchairs. Senior home staff and outside neighbors rushed from room to room in the facility, wrapping residents in blankets and sweeping them out in to the frigid night in wheelchairs and even in beds.

Barclay Friends executive director Linda Sterthous said in a letter posted Jan. 31 that the facility has "thoroughly examined and upgraded our fire protection systems and procedures across our campus."

Sterthous said the ATF's finding that the sprinkler system was without water "confirms our worst fears."

"We are deeply distressed to have it affirmed," Sterthous wrote. "... and we have taken steps to make sure this can never happen again."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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