Weeks after a January house fire killed a Keswick mother and her two children, grief-stricken husband and father Sadiqh Hussain expressed his gratitude to the community for an outpouring of support, including a fundraiser that has brought in more than $50,000.
He dismissed questions about the fire department’s response time and a change to the mutual aid agreement between the county and city fire departments, saying he doubts that a few minutes faster response by firefighters would have made a difference for his family.
“They did everything they could,” said Hussain, who was injured attempting to rescue his wife, Sayeda Nadia Ghaffer, his 7-year-old stepson Ammar Sheikh, and his 2-year-old daughter Aiza Hussain, who all died of smoke inhalation and thermal exposure in the blaze.
He does, however, have questions about why the multiple functioning smoke detectors in his second-story apartment—including one he had purchased and installed just weeks before the fire— didn’t give his family enough warning to allow them to escape from a fire that had already ignited by the time he arrived home from work at the Keswick Hall hotel around 1:30am on January 18.
The county fire investigation ruled the cause of the fire undetermined, but found it started near a baseboard heater in the second floor living room, and former Charlottesville Fire Chief Julian Taliaferro said fires started in such a manner most often begin with a smoldering phase before converting to flames.
When Hussain opened the front door that night, the fire was already well underway, although he didn’t immediately understand what was happening as he stood in the dark at the bottom of the staircase that led up to the apartment where his wife and the children should have been sleeping peacefully. He tried the light switch, but it didn’t work, and for a brief moment standing in the dark, he said, he couldn’t make sense of the burning smell and what he described as a “wobbling” noise.
Suddenly, he was hit full force by a plume of thick, acrid smoke and scorching heat that rushed down the stairs. He stumbled backwards coughing, and once outside, looked upstairs and saw flames in the living room.
Hussain made multiple frantic attempts to enter the apartment with a ladder thrown up against the house as windows blew out around him and he saw flames in his children’s bedroom. Each time he tried to crawl into the house through a window, he said, he was forced back by overwhelming heat and smoke that made it impossible to breathe and would later require him to receive medical treatment for burns to his hands and face and smoke inhalation.
“I couldn’t get in,” he said, describing calling to his family over and over but hearing only the roaring of the fire and a faint beeping which he believes was at least one smoke detector sounding before it was destroyed.
Like many protective parents, Hussain and his wife, who went by Nadia, had taken steps to ensure their children were trained on how to escape the home in a fire. They instructed Ammar, Aiza, and Hussain’s two older children from a previous marriage to use a second story door to access a porch off the bedroom they shared in case of a fire. The landlord had provided a ladder, Hussain said, and smoke detectors were already present and functioning when the family moved in eight months before the fire.
Neither Hussain, the fire department, nor the landlords, Kristi and Dan O’Donnell, knew what kind of detectors were present in the apartment, but the detector Hussain purchased for less than $10 at Kmart just weeks before the fire was most likely an ionization, since that’s the only type Kmart sells for that price. Statistics show that’s the type found in 90 percent of American homes.
What Hussain didn’t know when he made that purchase is that ionization detectors don’t actually respond to smoke; they sound only once flames are present.
It’s that flaw that has led multiple states including Massachusetts and Vermont to change their laws regarding smoke detectors after repeated testing has shown that ionization detectors fail to detect smoke particles from smoldering fires—the type most likely to kill people when they’re sleeping.
Those states, numerous localities across the United States, and several foreign countries, including Australia, now require photoelectric detectors, which sound as much as an hour earlier than ionization detectors during a smoldering fire, giving residents time to wake up and escape before they’re incapacitated by carbon monoxide and other poisons released during a fire’s smoldering phase.
In 2008, the International Association of Fire Fighters formally endorsed photoelectric detectors and recommended that state laws be changed to require photoelectric technology. The International Association of Fire Chiefs recommends combination detectors, which utilize both types of technology.
That’s also the type recommended by both Albemarle and Charlottesville fire departments. While officials from each department announced in 2008 that they would determine the type of detector present in every fire as a standard part of the investigation, Albemarle Fire Chief Dan Eggleston said the department now only investigates whether the detectors sounded and does not routinely check what type of detector was present.
Questions about the Keswick fire and detector function will likely never be answered since the cause of the blaze was undetermined, and the detectors were not recovered from the rubble. While fire officials believe the mother and her children were together in her bedroom when they died, there are few clues about their efforts to escape, since much of the second floor collapsed before investigators could examine it.
Hussain wonders if the detectors failed his family, and he hopes his devastating loss may help prevent other tragedies.
“Every father and husband wishes to take care of his family,” said Hussain, who is considering becoming a volunteer firefighter as a way to honor his late wife and children, and to increase fire safety awareness. “I feel there’s a purpose for me being alive. I want to help other fathers protect their families.”