No charges will be filed over a fatal fire at a downtown Aberdeen apartment building where the alarm system was not working, Aberdeen Police said Wednesday. The family of the woman who died may pursue a civil case against the building’s owners, however.
Kelly Lovell, 48, died after a fire in her room March 8 at the Gray Apartments on the 200 block of East Wishkah Street. The building was evacuated, and thanks in large part to the quick thinking of a neighbor who smelled smoke and the building’s manager, who emptied one fire extinguisher onto the blaze and ran for another, the fire was contained to a small area.
“What he did was pretty remarkable,” Detective Jon Hudson said.
Lovell was badly burned in the fire and airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for treatment, where she died the following day.
Hudson said the case was officially closed July 9 after a lengthy wait for a King County Medical Examiner’s Office report, consultation with the Grays Harbor County Prosecutor and the Aberdeen city attorney.
He said the investigation did not reveal any signs of foul play, and the fire appeared to have come from a small plastic garbage can near the head of Lovell’s bed. There were cigarettes and an ash tray on a bedside table and Hudson said a cigarette or match may have fallen into the garbage or been discarded there before it was completely cool.
Lovell’s boyfriend, who was away during the fire, told police the couple had removed the battery in the apartment’s smoke detector in order to smoke inside.
It’s unclear whether it would have helped in Lovell’s case; her toxicology tests showed her blood alcohol was 0.3, more than three times the legal driving limit of 0.08. She also tested positive for several narcotics, some of which may have been administered at the scene because of her injuries. The fire apparently burned quickly through her mattress and two box springs.
The building’s fire alarm was not working at the time, but Hudson said the fire response couldn’t have been much faster. A neighbor noticed the smell soon after the fire was believed to have started, and firefighters contained it within 15 minutes.
A non-working alarm system wouldn’t constitute a criminal offense, Hudson said.
Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard said the department will not issue any infraction to the owners.
“The bottom line is an alarm system is to alert occupants to escape, and it would not have in this case,” he said.
Although no charges will be pursued and no citations will be issued, Hudson said Lovell’s family is investigating a civil suit. They live out of the area.
The building’s owners, listed on the Grays Harbor County Assessor’s Office website as Rick Brown and Lee Langan of Vancouver, Wash., “were very cooperative with efforts to get (the alarm) back online, and until it was back online they had a fire watch,” Hubbard said. “They had somebody on site whose sole purpose was to stay alert for the presence of fire so they could notify and evacuate people.”
It’s a requirement of the city fire code as a short-term solution until an alarm can be repaired, rather than evacuating an entire building for an extended period of time. Hubbard said other buildings in the city have taken such measures.
The apartment building was built in 1926, and because of its age is not required to have a sprinkler system. The apartment’s alarm system has had issues in the past and owners had fixed it before, Hubbard said. City code requires it be inspected annually.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, mattress and bedding fires cause 2,200 injuries and 380 fatalities, more than twice those from all residential structure fires. Smoke alarms were either not present or not working in 62 percent of mattress and bedding fires.
Hubbard encouraged residents to make sure they have enough smoke alarms and that they’re working.
“Have at least one in your house per floor, if not more, change the batteries,” he said. “Early detection is the key, and smoke detectors are a very cheap investment in your safety.”