False alarms preceded deadly Texas high-rise fire

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Survivors of a fire that killed five people at a senior-living apartment near San Antonio say false alarms were routine at the 11-story complex, problems slowed the evacuation and answers from building management have been elusive.

Authorities are still investigating what caused the fire at the Wedgwood Senior Living apartments, which happened early Dec. 28. At least 20 people were hospitalized, and those who died were all in their 70s and 80s. A sixth Wedgwood resident died two days after the fire, but officials have not said if the blaze contributed to her death.

Firefighter Albert Paez saw people waving for help on the top balcony when he arrived shortly after 6 a.m, he told the San Antonio Express-News in a story published Sunday (http://bit.ly/1D6TPzp ). He said flames and heat surging from Apartment 302 held back three firefighters crouched by the door, unable to enter.

“As far as you could see, everything was engulfed in flames,” Paez said.

Three of the people who died were on the third floor and two on the seventh floor.

Between 75 and 120 elderly residents — many who had difficulty walking without help — had to be led out by first responders. Some residents on the upper floors were rescued from windows by ladder crews.

Residents said they felt no urgency when they first heard the alarm, inured by frequent false alarms.

“It would go off and then it would stop, then it would go off and then it would stop,” said Frances Chiles, 80.

Many said the fire has made them question whether people their ages should live in an 11-story building, describing how some people had trouble walking down any stairs — let alone several stories. The building’s elevators shut down during the fire, as is standard practice.

A number of residents told the newspaper they have felt abandoned by Wedgwood management, describing unreturned phone calls or requests for information about the status of the building. Some said Wedgwood managers did not visit at least one of the hotels where residents have been staying until Friday. Others are not sure how to get medical care after leaving their insurance cards and identifications behind.

Entrada Management Services, a unit of Los Angeles-based Entrada Partners that manages the Wedgwood building, said in a statement to the newspaper that the fire was tragic and their thoughts and prayers were with those affected. The company declined to answer questions.

Wedgwood took control of the building back from authorities Wednesday and continues to pay for hotel rooms. The Red Cross has been providing food.

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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