GFD downplays electrical ‘malfunction’ as cause of fatal fire

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Greensboro police Capt. Trey Davis addresses residents at Summit-Cone apartments. (photo by Jordan Green)

UPDATE, Aug. 30, 2:13 p.m.: Capt. Trey Davis tells Triad City Beat that the Greensboro Police Department does not plan to charge any individual in regard to the May 12 fire. The police and fire departments have both completed their investigations and each has ruled the fire an accident. Previously, community members have raised the question of whether the landlord should be held criminally liable.

Davis said that although the kitchen stove was seized from the apartment as potential evidence, there is no longer a need to hold the stove in the police department’s evidence section. He added, “Legal counsel for all parties involved in the fire are actively working to have the stove removed from GPD’s evidence and placed in a secure environment so all parties and their representatives can access the stove for any further desired testing or examination.

ORIGINAL POST: An investigative report by the Greensboro Fire Department on a fatal fire that took the lives of five Congolese refugee children appears to contradict information collected by a code inspector with the Office of the State Fire Marshal, while discounting statements by the family that their kitchen stove was inoperable.

Members of a Congolese refugee family told a Greensboro fire investigator that they had stopped using a kitchen stove because it wasn’t working, but the official report released by the department on Monday reiterated an earlier conclusion that a fatal fire was caused by “unattended cooking,” while adding that “there were no indicators that a malfunction of the stove was an ignition source.”

The five children, ages 18 months to 9 years old, of Mugabo Emmanuel and Furaha Lucy, perished in an overnight fire on May 12 at Summit-Cone apartments, a troubled complex that has since been condemned by the city. Greensboro fire units responded to the fire at 3:54 a.m. Emmanuel told fire Investigator Bridget Crump that he had put his children to bed. Their mother had been working a 12-hour shift at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant, and returned home to find the apartment engulfed in flames.

The couple does not speak English, but for months neighbors and community supporters have said that Emmanuel had repeatedly called the property manager to request that the stove be repaired, or that neighbors had called on Emmanuel’s behalf. Irene Agapion-Martinez, whose family owns the apartments, has said owners received no complaints about the stove at the apartment rented by the Emmanuel family in the days leading up to the fire.

One thing not in dispute is that the fire originated from a pot of food on the stove.

“The area of origin was the stove and the point of origin was the left front eye,” Crump wrote in the report. “Radiate heat from the operation of the stove ignited organic material causing the fire. Flames extended vertically from the stove and horizontally across the ceiling until the apartment was consumed in an atmosphere that was immediately dangerous to life and health.”

The report appears to rule out the possibility that the stove spontaneously activated, leading to the fire.

“There were no indicators that a malfunction of the stove was an ignition source,” the report said.

Statements by three adult family members to the fire investigator align on the point that the stove was not working at the time of the fire.

Five days after the fire, Emmanuel told the Crump and police Detective WA Morton that on the evening of May 11, he had returned from his job at Prime Solutions Del-Mont Production between 9 and 9:20 p.m. He said he changed clothes and then took the children over to eat supper at his parents’ apartment. He explained that he took the family to eat his parents’ place because their own stove was not working. Lucy told the investigator that she didn’t remember the last time she had cooked. Emmanuel also told the investigator that “the stove was not used in a while due to it turning on and off by itself.”

Lucy told the investigator that her sister-in-law, Naomie Machibiri, brought food in a medium-sized pot to the apartment just before she had to leave for work. Investigators also interviewed Machibiri, who confirmed that she brought the food over between 2:30 and 3 p.m. Emmanuel, who would have been at work when the food was dropped off, told the investigator that he didn’t take note of the pot after returning with the children from his parent’s apartment because they had already eaten.

The report also documents a history of trouble with the stove.

The investigation revealed that only 41 days after the property management company purchased the stove from Chavarria Appliance on Spring Garden Street, it had to be repaired. Investigators noted that a receipt confirmed the stove was purchased on Nov. 15, 2017. The report states, “Mario Chavarria received a text on 12/26/2017 from [property management company] ARCO stating the stove doesn’t work. Mr. Chavarria responded the next day and repaired the stove.”

During his May 17 interview with fire Inspector Crump and police Detective Morton, the report indicates that Mugabo Emmanuel “said that a week or two before the fire they had reported two things were not working in the bathroom: the toilet and the bath handle. Personnel responded to repair the issues, but did nothing about the stove. The worker told them he was only a plumber and could not look at the stove. Mr. Emmanuel called the office to report nothing was done about the stove.”

In an interview with Crump on May 14, Irene Agapion-Martinez confirmed that the day before the fire a work order had been placed to repair a bath handle that was broken in Unit G, the apartment where the Emmanuel family lived. The section of the report detailing the interview with Agapion-Martinez also indicates that on May 10 “a unit in the same building placed a work order for repair on the stove not working,” although the report doesn’t specify which unit. Agapion-Martinez did not return messages for this story.

The investigative report completed by Greensboro fire Investigator Bridget Crump relied on an electrical examination by Chris Faucette, a building code enforcement officer with the Office of the State Fire Marshall. Faucette authored a one-page section that is included in the report.

Faucette wrote that during his May 15 examination he discovered that “the circuit feeding the 2-circuit/240 volt sub-panel that supplied power to the range was missing its cable connector on both ends of the cable.” He also wrote: “And improper installation of SE cable connectors on sub-panel side.”

Faucette’s section of the report concludes: “The damage to the electrical panels were such that I could not determine if any wiring had faulted prior to fire.”

Faucette declined to comment for this story. Brian Taylor, the chief state fire marshal, said the state agency concurred with the Greensboro Fire Department’s final report, while referring all other questions to the local agency.

Yet the “Develop Hypothesis” section of Crump’s report appears to contradict Faucette’s inconclusive assessment that the electrical panels were damaged so badly that he could not determine if any wiring faulted prior to the fire.” Crump wrote, “Issues were noted relating to electrical code violations, but nothing noted that would point to electrical malfunction as a fire cause. There were only two breakers in the large panel that had tripped and per Mr. Faucette those did not power the stove. There was a separate panel with a breaker for the stove. There did not appear to be any damage other than heat from the fire itself to that breaker.”

Dwayne Church, an assistant chief with the Greensboro Fire Department, said Crump was not available to comment on the report. Asked about the apparent discrepancies between the state code inspector’s findings and Crump’s determinations, Church told Triad City Beat: “That doesn’t seem contradictory to me at all.”

Although the Greensboro Police Department’s criminal investigations division assisted with the investigation, the report noted, “The identification of parties having possible civil and/or criminal responsibility for the fire incident is beyond the scope of analysis contained in this report.”

According to the report, Detective Morton collected the stove and took it to a police facility at 300 S. Swing Road to preserve as evidence. The report says Morton collected the evidence under the authority of Capt. Trey Davis, commander of the criminal investigations division, and city Police Attorney Polly Sizemore.

Public Information Ronald Glenn declined to comment on whether the Greensboro Police Department is investigating possible criminal responsibility for the death of the five children at the apartment, repeatedly deflecting questions on the matter to the fire department during an interview.

Following a community outcry, the city of Greensboro agreed to inspect all units at the Summit-Cone apartments. After an inspection on Aug. 13, the city announced that 696 violations remained outstanding and condemned 41 out of 42 of the units. As a result, the city ordered residents to leave by Sept. 14.

Compounding the residents’ woes, Duke Energy confirmed that a downed pole caused an outage at the apartments on Aug. 24, resulting in a loss of power for almost seven hours.

Brett Byerly, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, said some of the residents have already left, but 27 families are still looking for a place to live. The housing coalition and other agencies hosted a “landlord-tenant fair” across the street from Summit-Cone apartments on Aug. 25, but the number of landlords interested in renting to refugees is limited.

“We had two property management companies come out, which I was hoping to have a lot more than that,” Byerly said. “It was pushed out far and wide to the [Greensboro] Landlords Association and the Triad Apartment Association. I understand it’s right in the middle of kids going back to school…. It was disappointing that we didn’t have more than that. But if two or three residents found housing as a result it was surely worthwhile for them.”

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