Keswick tragedy raises questions about fire agreement, smoke detectors

By the time the first 911 call was placed, flames were already visible from the second floor of the farmhouse at 870 Carriage Trail Place. Photo: Elli Williams By the time the first 911 call was placed, flames were already visible from the second floor of the farmhouse at 870 Carriage Trail Place. Photo: Elli Williams

“It’s fire! Fire! My kids and wife are inside!” The desperate 911 call made by an Albemarle County man who arrived home from work around 1:30am on January 18 to discover his home ablaze offers a heartbreaking glimpse into the tragedy that took the lives of 34-year-old Sayeda Nadia Ghaffer, 7-year-old Ammar Sheikh and 2-year-old Aiza Hussain.

Coughing and describing heavy smoke and visible flames, a desperate Sadiqh Hussain pleaded with an Emergency Communications Center operator to send help to the 87-year-old farmhouse at 870 Carriage Trail Place, about half a mile past the Shadwell store on Route 250, where he lived with his family in a second floor apartment.

As has been widely reported, by the time the firefighters initially reached the scene, 12 minutes after the first of three 911 calls was placed, it was too late. The mother and her two children were dead.

In the days since the tragedy, public controversy has mounted over a change in a mutual aid agreement between the city and county fire department.

“I don’t understand how it’s fine if you’re running one engine company past another one that’s just sitting there,” said Julian Talliaferro, who served as Charlottesville Fire Chief from 1971 to 2005, when the mutual aid agreement called for the city to automatically respond to fires in the county.

That changed in July, when the city and county renegotiated the agreement. The new arrangement means the city responds to fires in certain areas of the county only upon request. No request was issued for city response to the recent fire, which meant that county fire engines drove past two city fire stations closer to the actual fire.

“We simply weren’t dispatched,” said current Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner.

Response time to the Keswick fire was also slowed by the fact that emergency personnel from the East Rivanna fire company, located about a mile from the Carriage Hill fire, were en route to another emergency call. They curtailed their response to that call, according to county spokesperson Lee Catlin, but had to return to the fire station first to change vehicles. They arrived at the Carriage Hill fire one minute after the first responders from the county’s Monticello fire station, located seven miles away.

In December, the subject was discussed at a meeting of the Albemarle County Fire/EMS Board, and Albemarle Fire Chief Dan Eggleston described a tight budget and said the county would have to be cautious about calling the city for financial reasons.

“They are having to keep a very careful eye on a daily basis as to staying within those guidelines,” read the minutes.

In an interview following the recent fire, however, Eggleston defended the revised agreement, citing the opening of the new Ivy fire station as well as the purchase of additional firefighting equipment.

“Operating under the new arrangement serves the city and county well,” said Eggleston. “There was enough coverage coming from the county companies at that time,” he said.

In the case of the recent fire, Eggleston said in a subsequent written statement, even massive efforts by the first responders couldn’t have helped the victims.

“All indications from the scene cause fire officials to conclude that by the time the 911 call was made and units were beginning to respond, the fire was already too advanced to save the upstairs occupants,” he said.

According to Albemarle County Deputy Fire Chief John Oprandy, both floors of the house were equipped with functioning smoke detectors. In fact, Oprandy said that Hussain had installed a second smoke detector upstairs a couple of weeks before the fire. According to Oprandy, no survivors heard smoke detectors sounding on either level, and firefighters were unable to recover any of the detectors to determine what type was present.

The most common type of detector, ionization, often does not respond to smoke from a smoldering fire but will sound an alert after flames break out. Photoelectric detectors do sense the smoke from smoldering fires, but can be slightly slower at sounding in the presence of flames. The county and the city fire departments each recommend detectors that utilize both types of technology.

While the cause of the fire has been ruled “undetermined,” investigators say it started near a second-story baseboard heater, which former Chief Talliaferro said suggests a scenario in which an ionization detector might not sound.

“I would say that would be a smoldering fire,” he said.

If the detectors fail to sound and a full blown blaze breaks out, escape becomes far less likely and there’s little a fire department can do no matter how quickly firefighters arrive or how hard they work.

One of the recent fire’s survivors wants the firefighters to know she recognized their efforts.

“I saw them trying,” said Kristi O’Donnell, who escaped the downstairs floor of the house with her husband and son. “They did everything they could.”