November 28, 2014

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Owners expected to be cited for apartment fire

LORAIN — Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Cuevas said he expects to cite the owners of the Antlers Apartments today for violations he discovered while investigating a fire that trapped six people on a rooftop Monday afternoon.

Cuevas didn’t want to discuss the violations in detail on Tuesday, saying his investigation wasn’t complete.

But he did say that two of the problems he found — fire extinguishers a few months past their expiration dates and at least two doors on the lower level of the building that were difficult to open — were corrected by the building management Tuesday.

In addition to Cuevas’ inquiry, William Desvari, the city’s chief building inspector, is doing his own investigation to determine why building owner Jon Veard removed a fire escape ladder without obtaining the appropriate permits.

Veard, who owns the building on Washington Avenue, did not return several messages left for him Tuesday.

The problems came to light Monday when residents living on the second floor in back of the building encountered thick, black smoke in the stairwell as they tried to leave, so they turned to their only other way of escape — a back door that leads to a rooftop about
15 feet off the ground.

But the residents ended up being stuck on the roof for about 30 minutes because of the missing ladder, which residents said was removed this summer. Among those on the rooftop was a 2½-year-old boy whose parents had grabbed his coat, hat and gloves before leaving their apartment.

Desvari said Veard’s son, Jon Veard Jr., contacted him in June or July inquiring about whether the ladder could be disconnected. Jon Veard Jr. works with his father at United Property Management, which owns the building, according to a secretary at the company.

Desvari said he told Jon Veard Jr. he could remove it, but he would have to put another ladder or stairs there, so no one would be trapped on the rooftop in an emergency.

Desvari said he also sent Jon Veard Jr. a letter shortly after that conversation saying that in order to remove the ladder, a demolition permit would have to be sought from the city Building Department. That permit never was pulled, and Desvari said he plans on finding out why the ladder was removed without authorization.

“There was no reason for me to look into the matter further after that conversation because he never pulled the permit,” Desvari said. “I didn’t know he did it.”

Desvari provided a copy of the letter, which included his signature but was not dated, to The Chronicle-Telegram. It states that Desvari spoke with Cuevas and they were both in agreement that the ladder could be removed because the building had the appropriate number of exits for an apartment with less than 500 tenants.

Cuevas, however, said he did not recall any conversation with Desvari about the ladder and saw the letter for the first time Tuesday, when United Property Management faxed him a copy.

Had they spoken, Cuevas said, he could have informed Desvari that the ladder was needed because the next closest exit was 94 feet away, which is more than the 50 feet allowed by law.

“As I was walking through (the building) I kept wondering ‘Why was this allowed, this is too far,’” Cuevas said.

The city fire marshal is supposed to ensure that buildings are up to code, and the last annual inspection of the building was done April 30 — before the ladder was taken down, Cuevas said. Only a few minor violations were found, and they were immediately corrected.

Cuevas has determined that the fire, which began in the master bedroom of apartment 104, was likely caused by a space heater wedged between the bed and a wall. It is still unclear whether the device short-circuited or ignited nearby clothes or bedding, but the heater definitely did not have the three feet of space required to operate safely, he said.

“We were lucky if there was two feet of space between the wall and bed,” he said.

Only apartment 104 was deemed unlivable by firefighters, but the entire first floor suffered heavy smoke damage. Assistant Lorain fire Chief Randy Hupp estimated the damage to be about $100,000 to the building and $30,000 to its contents.

The Antlers Apartments was built in 1922 as the Antlers Hotel and is still one of the more recognizable buildings in the city in part because of its proximity to City Hall.

Contact Adam Wright at 653-6257 or awright@chroniclet.com.