Crews, building features saved lives in fire

Posted at 5:08 PM, Jan 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-25 17:09:19-05

We're learning more about a deadly fire at a senior independent living facility in Lakeland.  It happened around 4 a.m. Sunday at Bella Vista Manor.

Three people were treated for smoke inhalation, and one man, 59-year-old John Connelly, died. Smoking is to blame for the fire.

Despite the tragic loss, firefighters say a lot went right during the fire, all of which helped save lives. Forty-one residents and several staff members made it out safe.

Sandi Allen is 75 years old, and she is now counting her blessings after making it out of her second floor apartment during the fire.

"I always thank God every day that I'm alive, yes, and that I'm in a good, safe environment," said Allen.

Lakeland's fire and police departments got to the fire in less than five minutes, and right away, they worked hand-in-hand to get everyone out.

"Very scary. We've gone through it before with our fire drills, and everything was organized," Allen said.

Constructed in 1971, the building's old enough that it is not required to have sprinklers. But Bella Vista does have a fire alarm system that's monitored by an outside company. Smoke alarms are also hard-wired to the building's electrical system and have a battery back-up.

"That fire alarm had actually fallen off the wall during the fire and was actually melted to the carpet," said John McGrath, Lakeland Fire investigator. "In the neighboring unit, that's what may have alerted that resident."

The construction of the building was a big help, too. Concrete blocks with fire resistant doors and corridors made a huge difference in limiting the spread of both smoke and flames.

"Each unit is its own cell, and that prevents the spread of fire to another unit," McGrath said.

Bella Vista has no prior fire code issues and undergoes an annual inspection. But as an independent living facility, it has less strict requirements than assisted living centers or nursing homes. So, if you or a loved one is moving into any senior center, do your homework.

"I would start with making sure the facility's been recently inspected by the fire department, and if it's a state facility, that it's been inspected by the state as well, and make sure there's no violations," said McGrath.

As for the man who died, the fire actually started in his unit, and crews say it's likely the overwhelming smoke and carbon monoxide may have knocked him out quickly, especially if he was already asleep.

Management tells ABC Action News most of the residents at Bella Vista Manor should be able to move back into their homes by the end of the week. Some of them will be allowed back in Monday night. They don't believe they would've done anything differently responding to the fire, and they credit local crews for the quick response.