Fire system was inspected hours before fatal fire at senior living facility

Published: Jan. 4, 2023 at 5:18 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The senior living facility that was the scene of a deadly fire last week was ill-equipped to handle such a fire, officials say.

The fire claimed the life of one of the residents living there, a 72-year-old man.

Two other residents are recovering after being critically injured, and 45 more have spent time in hotels, many having lost everything to the blaze.

Action News 5 learned more about the man who died in the fire and the incredible challenge rescuers faced because of multiple system failures.

We know the fire started in the room of the resident who died.

The Memphis Fire Department said the cause is still under investigation.

The victim was blind and could not see to make his way out. His best friend, desperate to save him, had to be physically removed as the flames intensified.

Turns out, the odds were against all of those senior citizens that cold, December night.

“First of all, it is heartbreaking,” said facility manager Vanecia Belser Kimbrow. “It is heartbreaking because we lost the sweetest man ever.”

Kimbrow choked up talking about the resident who lost his life.

“He was sweet. He was kind. He was gentle,” she said. “He was friendly. He was caring. And we lost him on this site, so that was the hardest part.”

The deadly fire, she said, was the result of a perfect storm.

Kimbrow says on the day of the fire, all major systems were checked by fire safety services.

Busted pipes during the freezing weather last week knocked out the fire suppression system. A fire safety inspection team, just hours before the 8 p.m. fire, had red-tagged the system and told the staff to patrol the property every 30 minutes to an hour.

“It was our staff and residents that first discovered the fire,” said Kimbrow, “And the alarms went off and it was isolated to a single room. A single room, not the tragedy that is here today.”

A tragedy, because the sprinkler system didn’t work. A tragedy, said Kimbrow, because the fire lane - the road that used to connect the facility on Kirby Road directly to Winchester Road - was blocked off to give another neighborhood a private drive.

“So they get a private driveway and we lost an emergency access lane,” Kimbrow said. “So it took forever for the fire trucks to make their way to our property in order to stage and get the fire put out in a timely manner.”

She praised the heroism of Memphis firefighters that night. 47 other residents were safely evacuated.

“I literally saw firefighters one block over on Oak, putting on gear,” she said, “running to get here, carrying all their gear to get here. They were doing everything they could to get here as fast as they possibly could. And I watched them go in time and time again to get everyone out.”

All the survivors are temporarily sheltered at the Embassy Suites for at least the next few weeks.

A timeline for rebuilding the place that so many have called home since it opened in 2015 is now uncertain.

”I don’t know if I can bring them home or not,” Kimbrow told Action News 5. “And if I can’t bring them home, where am I going to put them? I have one mission, and that’s to get them safely placed and to make sure they’re happy and whole and their last days are filled with dignity and grace in a place that feels like home.”

MFD estimated the damage at $1.5 million dollars.

Kimbrow said it’s more like $6 or $7 million, since more than half the property was destroyed.

They’re hoping to renovate the side damaged by smoke and water and move residents back in by the summer, but she admitted that is an ambitious goal.

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