DALLAS (CBS11) — A CBS 11 News investigation is raising serious questions about why first responders were delayed getting to a deadly North Dallas condo fire last March.
The blaze, the biggest in Dallas in more than a decade, destroyed 60 homes and claimed the life of a grandmother.
An internal fire department memo which CBS 11 News obtained through sources states Dallas Fire Rescue “was behind the curve from the beginning because of the delay in reporting the fire and the extent of the fire spread upon arrival.”
It was a resident’s 911 call, not an automatic alarm, which alerted firefighters to the hell that wreaked havoc on Preston Place Condos.
“The fire department said that they believe it smoldered for 30 minutes before it was detected,” condo owner Karen Stuart told CBS 11 News.
Stuart lost her home of 37 years, but made it out alive. Her neighbor and friend, 89-year-old Jacqueline McDonald, wasn’t as fortunate.
Firefighters arrived to Preston Place at 11:29 p.m., about 16 minutes before McDonald called her son to say her home was “full of smoke.” According to police reports, a DPD sergeant, radioed at 11:49 p.m. for firefighters to check for the elderly woman in her unit on the top floor.
McDonald’s body was discovered three days later under a mattress in the ruins.
“I have to believe that there was a lot of smoke in Jackie’s apartment, very quickly,” Stuart said.
The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department declined to be interviewed for this story. City records about the fire sought through the Texas Public Information Act are being withheld.
The internal fire department memo obtained by the I-Team does not address McDonald’s death, but commends crews for performing exceptionally well given the “monumental task of rescue and fire containment.”
The City of Dallas did not require Preston Place to install fire sprinklers when it was built in 1979. Patrick Nolan, the building’s property manager for nearly 17 years, says the complex was also exempt from having smoke and heat sensors as well.
But the I-Team has learned, that for a nearly a year before the fire, residents were told a more modern alarm was needed and on its way.
“I think if the fire alarm had gone off when it either sensed heat or sensed smoke, then you would have had more time,” said Nancy Ohan, a longtime resident. “It wouldn’t have looked as dramatic to me when I opened my front doors.”
A homeowner on the first floor pulled a manual alarm that triggered a siren heard by some, but residents on other floors like Nancy Ohan say they didn’t hear it.
The I-Team obtained minutes from Preston Place condo homeowner’s association board meetings. Month after month in 2016, the minutes detail a deal with a company called Firetrol to have an upgraded alarm installed.
Minutes from October 2016, five months before the fire, says Firetrol “is still waiting for City approval of the plan.”
“There were so many things that went wrong,” Ohan said.
After the fire, Ohan was so bothered about the alarm that she contacted Firetrol and hired a private investigator. She says that Firetrol employees told both of them that there was never a final contract. One employee, according to Ohan, described the old alarm as “corroded” and “without power.”
Firetrol told the I-Team that there was no contract, but declined to answer additional questions.
The fire department memo about the disaster states that it’s unknown if even the building’s older existing fire detection system was operating that night.
Preston Place was leveled. What’s left is for sale. HOA board president Arnold Spencer declined to be interviewed. Nolan, the former property manager, maintains there was a contract and faults Firetrol for dragging its feet.
“A fire alarm system is a life or death protection,” Stuart said. “That’s part of our feeling of security, is believing that we had that, when in fact we didn’t. I would like to see someone held accountable for that.”
How the fire started is still unknown, but the I-Team has learned the fallout from the tragedy is being investigated by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. Whether anyone should — or might be charged — will be for a grand jury to decide.
Nearly a year after the fire, Stuart and Ohan both have a message for owners of other older Dallas buildings: Be proactive with your HOA and know what type of fire protection system your building does or doesn’t have.