The narrative suggesting a father was at fault for an apartment fire that took the lives of his five children last month suffered some serious blows during a meeting between residents and public safety officials on Thursday.
Soon after the deadly fire, which tore through the Summit-Cone apartments — also known as Heritage Apartments — just before 4 a.m. on May 12, the Greensboro Fire Department issued a finding that the origin and cause of the blaze was “unattended cooking.”
A statement by Irene Agapion-Martinez on behalf of her family, which owns and manages the property, cited the fire department’s finding, while absolving owners of responsibility. “The fire department determined that unattended cooking caused the fire, not a maintenance problem with the stove, smoke detectors or a failure to meet other life safety requirements in unit 3100-G Summit,” she said. “The fire was a tragic accident unrelated to anything Arco did or did not do.”
Faced with a barrage of questions from residents and advocates during a community meeting yesterday, Fire Marshall Tim Henshaw stood behind the “unattended cooking” finding as a narrowly defined technical cause, but disavowed any further conclusions that would either absolve the property owners or place blame on Emmanuel Mugabo, the father who was at home when the May 12 fire took the lives of his five children.
Dozens of residents — Congolese refugees placed by two resettlement agencies — and community supporters sat in plastic chairs and upholstered couches in the unshaded courtyard of the apartment complex, with the temperature hovering around 90 degrees. They peppered representatives of the fire, police and human relations departments with questions during the meeting hosted by the city’s International Advisory Committee.
A woman in the audience asked Henshaw if it was possible that the range came on by itself instead of being activated by a person, he responded, “Anything is possible.”
Another woman followed up: “So based on your conclusion, you have no way of assessing whether that stove was, in fact, faulty or not.”
“Correct,” Henshaw said.
“So in the newspaper the landlord is asserting that it was not a faulty stove based on the conclusion of ‘unattended cooking,’” she continued. “I was just wondering if she is making an accurate statement then.”
“I can’t rule either way,” Henshaw responded. “I know why the statement was made, but yes, it’s hard to know what was going on with the range itself.”
Emmanuel Mugabo sat in the front row, his shoulders slumped in grief. His wife sat across the courtyard on a landing, holding her head in her hands. Seated behind Emmanuel Mugabo, his neighbor, Saye Flomo, told police Capt. Trey Davis: “I called for him. The burners don’t go off. After they cook, the burners don’t go off for two or three hours.”
Flomo later elaborated: “I called [the apartment management] three times in three days before the fire took place. They said they were going to take care of it, and they didn’t.
“He was sleeping when the fire took place,” Flomo added. “He was not cooking at all. He came home from work and took his kids to bed. Then he went to bed, too.”
Irene Agapion-Martinez did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this story on Friday.
Other residents gave similar accounts to city officials about potentially life-threatening maintenance issues at the Summit-Cone apartments.
Telespho Birashira said fire was coming out of the wires where his cookstove plugged into the wall. He said he complained, and the owners replaced the stove after the May 12 tragedy. Another resident complained about the roof leaking into his bathroom, potentially compromising the electrical wiring in the unit.
Fire officials have said that a smoke detector was present in the Mugabos’ apartment, but that it wasn’t operating. Birashira and Flomo said inoperable smoke detectors are a pervasive problem.
“The smoke detectors do not work throughout the whole complex,” Flomo said.
Capt. Davis said that the police department is currently assisting the fire department in its investigation. Davis said he wouldn’t rule out a criminal investigation in the future, but at this point the evidence doesn’t warrant it.
“There’s a lot of emotion around this,” he said. “It’s extremely delicate. Any death is bad, but you’ve got five kids. Several levels of grief come into play. You have a group of people that came to this country for a better life, and they’re in conditions that are not comfortable. I want to be here so people know the police department’s investigative body is in the game.”
Lindy Garnette, the CEO of YWCA of Greensboro, and Franca Jalloh, chair of the International Advisory Committee, confronted the police captain.
“Why isn’t there a criminal investigation?” Garnette asked. “If that was five kids in my neighborhood, heads would be rolling.”
Davis reiterated his point about the sensitivity of the situation, prompting Garnette to cite the fire department’s limited findings, which appear to place responsibility for the fire on the tenants without evidentiary support.
“As a parent, I think the only thing worse than losing five kids is to have it be on the front page of the newspaper that it was my fault,” Garnette said.
Arco Realty and members of the Agapion family, along with the city of Greensboro, are being sued by the widow of a plumber who was fatally electrocuted making repairs at a different apartment complex in August 2017.
The lawsuit alleges that Gary Lee Hickenbottom was electrocuted when he went into a crawlspace and came into contact with exposed electrical wires. After police and fire personnel responded to the incident, a building inspector was called in.
“The inspector determined that the permits were not obtained by the Agapion defendants and Arco Realty for this electrical work,” the lawsuit alleges. “The inspector further found that the electrical system had bare wires, dangerous conditions, unsafe wiring, and electrical work that did not meet code.”
Agapion-Martinez has previously declined to comment on the suit.
At Summit-Cone apartments on Thursday, volunteers handed out color-coded paper slips with phone numbers for renters to call for various needs, including maintenance repairs, housing, or discrimination.
“If you believe that your home isn’t being repaired as fast as someone else’s would be; if you believe that someone is ignoring your repairs because of your identity,” said Love Crossling, the city’s human relations director, “we are the ones to call because we do not believe that anyone deserves to be treated any differently when it comes to trying to make sure they’re house is safe.
“There are laws in this country that ensure that no one can be mistreated because of where they’re from,” she added, “and our office is responsible for investigating claims when someone believes they’re being treated differently, denied housing because of their identity.”
Flomo said the refugees are being treated unfairly.
“They are not putting the right stove in because they think this is a refugee community,” he said.