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Hanging by a thread

Roughly 100 buildings in the Springs have fire escapes. Are any of them safe?


Editor's note: This story was updated Friday, Sept. 26, to eliminate a reference to Patricia Cortez seeking damages from Colorado Springs' city government; her lawyers had only filed a notice of claim to reserve their right to sue. They have since decided not to seek damages from the city.

At about 1:35 p.m. on Jan. 22, Colorado Springs Police officer Erin Plant was finishing a traffic stop a few blocks from Kiowa Street in downtown Colorado Springs when passersby described a very loud bang, like an explosion. It was the sound of Pedro Carreno dying.

Carreno, 41, had plunged one story from a fire escape at 31 S. Tejon St. He died instantly from massive head and neck injuries. Bystanders cried and covered their eyes.

Later, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would find that the fire escape was dangerous. That meant fines of just $7,000 each for the building's owner, Cygnet Building Holdings, and for Carreno's employer. (Cygnet negotiated and paid a $6,000 fine; the employer's fine is pending.)

Carreno's widow, Patricia Cortez, is suing Cygnet and the building management company, HLI Properties-Strongbrook. Both declined to comment for this story through their lawyer but have filed court papers blaming others, including the Colorado Springs Fire Department. According to a police report, a firefighter had identified the fire escape as inoperable in 2012.

But fire escapes have been a danger for a long time. They were banned on new construction in the 1970s because they were unsafe.

And yet, says Roger Lovell, a structural engineer with the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, "we still have all those old buildings out there that still have fire escapes on them" — about 100 of them in Colorado Springs, according to the Fire Department. And they still could end up being the only path to safety in an emergency — if they're safe. But there's no way to know if they are until it's too late, because no one is tasked with inspecting them.

Carreno fell to his death through a regulatory hole. And we can't determine what, if anything, has changed since that day, in part because CSFD, involved in the Carreno litigation, says it can't answer many questions.

Carreno and other Weathercraft workers arrived at the Tejon Street building shortly after lunch to assess repairing the roof, according to a police report. Richard Farias, Carreno's co-worker, told Officer Plant they were waiting to meet the building maintenance manager, who wasn't available until 3 p.m.

"While the[y] waited," the report says, "they noticed the fire escape and decided it would be the better way to access the roof, instead of having to go through the building. He[Farias] said they wanted to stay out of the building so they did not track in the dirt." (The lawsuit alleges a different scenario, saying the management company, HLI, told the workers to use the fire escape in the alley behind the building, just south of Kiowa Street.)

Carreno was the first onto the staircase, on the second floor, Farias told the officer. He walked to the end, which should have lowered on its own under his weight, but it didn't budge. Farias was behind Carreno several steps, and another co-worker, Cesar Ibarra, was near the landing.

"Mr. Farias said he was holding on the hand rails pretty tight, in anticipation of the ladder moving down," Plant said in the report. "He said as Mr. Carreno began bouncing the ladder, it took approximately two jumps before it fell to the ground."

Lovell, who examined the fire escape that day, says the apparatus was designed to lower the last flight of stairs from a horizontal position to an incline touching the ground. A person's weight is supposed to cause a cylindrical weight housed in a metal tube attached to the building to gradually rise, thereby lowering the stair from its perch one story up.

"The counterweight is what holds the stair up," Lovell explains. "It appears to me that the counterweight was seized in the casing, and the guy jumping up and down broke the cable, and the whole thing came down."

It was a shock — yet not everyone would be surprised that this fire escape malfunctioned. Officer Plant's report describes how a firefighter identified it as faulty in 2012:

"As I spoke with other investigators and medical personnel," Plant wrote, "I learned that Firefighter Matt Langly [sic] had been on a foot patrol with [Truck 1] in 2012 in the downtown area. He said they will frequently park downtown and walk the alleys and observe the accessibility of the buildings in case of emergency. He stated he observed the fire escape on this particular building and wondered if it worked... He said he grabbed a pipe hook from the truck and tried to pull the ladder down, but was unable to. Mr. Langly [sic] said he was not doing a formal inspection of the system, only curious if it worked for further fire related access."

Whether Langley notified the building owner is unclear. Cygnet says in court papers he didn't, and Cortez's lawyers with McDivitt Law Firm also claim the Fire Department didn't notify the owner or property manager.

Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey told media at the time of the death that the department looks at fire escapes if called to buildings for unrelated reasons. Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dubay explains via email, "Our firefighters routinely walk through and around buildings all over town to conduct what we call 'pre-plans' should they need to work at buildings under fire conditions. It's a common practice for fire departments across the country... they are not 'inspections' from a code enforcement standpoint."

The National Fire Protection Association, based in Quincy, Mass., has studied fire escape hazards for 100 years, according to a recent article in NFPA Journal. "From the outset," author Carl Baldassarra writes, "the committee reserved some of its harshest criticism for fire escapes, which it tended to view as a problematic solution to the larger problem of getting people out of buildings quickly and safely in the event of fire."

In the committee's first report to the NFPA's executive committee in 1914, it noted "common defects" in fire escapes, such as that they're hard to get to, not shielded against flames shooting from windows, are missing ladders and stairs from the second floor to the ground, and can be cluttered with items stored there by tenants. Even now, Baldassarra notes, fire escapes, while still credited with saving lives, pose dangers, and maintenance "is essential to assure their usability and safety," including their structural integrity. "This is a critical focus of fire escape inspection."

About 10 days before Carreno was killed, a man fell to his death in Philadelphia when an apartment building's fire escape, which hadn't been inspected in decades, collapsed, according to news reports.

As in Colorado Springs, and numerous other cities in the U.S., in Philadelphia there is no required periodic inspection of fire escapes, and by all accounts there never has been. The Philadelphia City Council entertained the idea of adopting a fire-escape inspection program last spring, after the death, but so far it has not done so, after building owners complained about the expense.

There's been no discussion by Springs City Council to require fire escape inspections.

Lovell says Regional Building inspects elevators every six months, twice as often as the law requires. It's up to the Fire Department to inspect other safety issues, he says, such as access in and out of buildings and fire extinguishers. He says fire escape inspections should be conducted regularly, but doesn't say by whom.

Pueblo Fire Department doesn't inspect that city's roughly two dozen fire escapes, says interim Deputy Chief Shawn Shelton, and he's unaware of any agency that does. "The current code we're under does not address them specifically," he says. Pueblo, like Colorado Springs, follows the 2009 International Building Code and Fire Code.

However, in Denver, the fire department, which also follows the 2009 codes, inspects the approximately 150 fire escapes in the city and county of Denver annually as part of its routine fire inspections, Fire Prevention Division Chief Joseph Gonzales says via email. "If there are obvious deficiencies," he writes, "the fire escape is included in any order issued for items that need to be brought into compliance."

Gonzales says Denver Fire is planning to adopt the 2015 International Fire Code. "This is the first time requirements for fire escapes are all included in one section of the code, eliminating the need to research the past code effective at the time each fire escape was constructed," he says.

New building and fire codes are introduced every three years by the International Code Council, which works jointly with the National Fire Protection Association to update the International Fire Code, also every three years. The most current available is the 2012 code.

In the Springs, Regional Building historically has adopted a new version every six years. It doesn't update more often, Lovell says, because it's a costly and protracted process for an agency that serves seven jurisdictions in the region. Lovell says there's been no discussion so far of adopting the 2015 code.

Until the 2012 code came out, there were no specific guidelines requiring fire escapes to be inspected, says Cisco Meneses, of Somerville, Mass. Recognizing that dearth, Meneses in recent years established the for-profit Fire Escape Services, with offices on the East and West coasts, and Fire Escape Engineers, and founded the nonprofit National Fire Escape Association.

He says before the 2012 code was issued, which requires inspections every five years, inspectors could cite a building owner for an unsafe fire escape if it was found while inspecting a building's other fire safety features.

Meneses has developed inspection requirements, which include the obvious, such as broken or missing steps and railings, and also load-bearing tests. But even minus such provisions in building and fire codes, Meneses says, fire departments could turn to older codes' sections on unsafe buildings to issue citations for faulty fire escapes. "It's called an imminent hazard," he says. "As a firefighter, if it's right there in your face, now I'm forced to do something about it. I would put it under 'egress maintenance — obstruction.' It's another violation if it's not structurally sound."

But cities nationwide have all but ignored fire escapes until an incident occurs. "It's out of sight, out of mind, and don't look for trouble," he says, noting that firefighters themselves often advise recruits to not use fire escapes, because they're unreliable.

Meneses has taught fire-escape safety across the country, often at no cost. He conducted a seminar in late March in Salt Lake City during which the Springs and Philadelphia deaths were noted. "I called the city of Colorado Springs to see if I could come out and do a class," he says. "They never returned my call."

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