An investigation into the cause of a deadly 2017 fire at a senior living center in West Chester has found a valve to the facility’s sprinkler system was turned off at the time of the blaze, according to officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“We are not able to determine through interviews when, or who, or how that valve came to be in the off position,” said Don Robinson, special agent in charge.
In closing the investigation, ATF officials shared some details but said the overall cause of the blaze is “undetermined.”
The five-alarm fire, which started after 10 p.m. Nov. 16, 2017, began in the garden patio, climbed up the side of the building, and spread through the roof, according to Robinson. He said he did not believe that the sprinkler system would have been able to halt the fire if it had been working, because of where the fire started.
“I can’t think of anywhere in the country that requires sprinklers on the exterior of the building,” he said. There is no evidence the fire was intentionally set.
As a result of the blaze, more than two dozen people suffered injuries. Four residents — Theresa Malloy, Mildred E. Gadde, Delores G. and Thomas F. Parker — were killed.
“What they found validates what we have said early on in the press, which is that the valve was closed … We believe that that was gross negligence up to recklessness and outrageousness,” said Malloy family attorney Andrew Duffy. The valve was located behind a locked door that only certain staff could open. The Malloy family has confidentially settled a civil suit against Barclay Friends, but is continuing to pursue legal action against other parties, according to Duffy.
While the official investigation did not conclude how the fire started, attorneys for two of the families affected said it was sparked by a smoker violating the facility’s no-smoking policy.
“The ATF has reached some conclusions, but they haven’t reached the ultimate conclusion,” which would be who started the fire, said attorney Daniel Purtell, counsel for the Parker family.
In a letter responding to the ATF’s investigation, Barclay Friends executive director Linda Sterthous said she is “deeply distressed” by the findings about the sprinkler system.
The facility has taken steps to prevent future fires, she said, including “state-of-the-art fire safety systems and construction materials” in a new building to replace the one destroyed in the fire.