Stewart Manor fire followups: Seattle Housing Authority responds

(Sunday photo by WSB contributing photojournalist Christopher Boffoli)
As promised, we checked with the Seattle Housing Authority today regarding what one of the Stewart Manor residents told WSB contributing photojournalist Matt Durham after yesterday morning’s fire – that there are no sprinklers, and that it was dark inside. SHA spokesperson Virginia Felton looked into the questions for us. First, regarding sprinklers:

Stewart Manor does NOT have sprinklers. The building was built before they were required and it would be very expensive to retrofit with sprinklers. One of our construction managers estimated half a million dollars to add sprinklers to Stewart Manor. Because of how most of our high rise buildings are built, they are highly rated for fire safety in spite of not having sprinklers. They are made of concrete and masonry with steel framing. In every instance where I have known of a fire in our high rise buildings, it has consistently been restricted to the one unit where it started. This was also the case at Stewart Manor. Even though the smoke damage is extensive, the fire damage is limited to the fifth floor apartment where the fire originated.

So what about emergency lighting? We asked if its absence was why the resident reported dark hallways. Felton’s reply:

All our apartment buildings are equipped with standard illuminated exit signs. The taller ones have been fairly recently equipped with backup generators that run the elevators and hallway lights if the power goes off. At six stories, Stewart Manor is NOT equipped with a back up generator. In any event, back up or emergency lighting only becomes functional if there is a power outage, which was not the case with this fire at Stewart Manor. The hallways were dark (and hot) because of the thick smoke. Investigation this morning shows that some exit signs (made of plastic) melted from the heat that rose to the ceiling in the hallways.

(Sunday photo of firefighter Bennett from Ladder 7, taken by WSB contributing photojournalist Matt Durham)
She also tells WSB that cleanup crews have been at the building all day today, working on cleanup, and that more residents will be able to return to their apartments later in the day “and we will make sure everyone has a place to stay.” According to the Seattle Fire Department report yesterday, the fire – which sent three people to the hospital for what SFD described as “minor smoke inhalation” – started with someone heating shoe polish to shine shoes, and did $175,000 damage.

17 Replies to "Stewart Manor fire followups: Seattle Housing Authority responds"

  • BEA September 14, 2009 (2:17 pm)

    Why the reporting over whether or not this building has sprinklers and emergency lighting? How many people have built in sprinklers and emergency lighting in their homes? Come on!

  • WSB September 14, 2009 (2:30 pm)

    (A) A resident brought it up. We promised to follow it up.
    (B) It *is* a valid issue. A single-family home is not comparable to a six-story building with 72 units and maybe at the most three or four exterior, ground-level doors. You can’t get out fast, if you can get out at all. Sprinklers are required for such buildings built after 1990; they save lives. And regarding the lighting, it’s an interesting point that the exit signs melted in the heat of the fire – I need to follow up whether they are going to replace them with something new and more fire-withstanding.

  • bridge to somewhere September 14, 2009 (2:42 pm)

    @BEA: it strikes me that if you think building codes for single-family residential units and high rises are the same then this journalism was pretty darn worthwhile . . .

  • laurie September 14, 2009 (2:50 pm)

    The Seattle Housing Authority does a good job housing some really marginal humans. Their facilities are maintained to a level that is acceptable. It would not make sense to sprinkler this building as the residents with their unattended candles and cooking, would set them off all the time. Seattleites should thank SHA for housing people that most people would deem unhousable, thus keeping the hopeless underclass from getting underfoot. They work with some of the most base human events that you would not even think possible. This is why the one woman said she was afraid of someone breaking into her apartment. It is almost impossible to evict the riff raff as they are quite protected in this federally funded program. SHA gets a bum rap.

  • bridge to somewhere September 14, 2009 (4:09 pm)

    i agree laurie, btw. i think SHA has a thankless job that they do well. i think that’s reflected in the spokesperson’s comments to WSB, actually.

  • nuni September 14, 2009 (4:33 pm)

    laurie, well said.

  • Michael September 14, 2009 (4:45 pm)

    Yeah, it’s good that SHA can correct the record on “no lights” and explain building construction so that rumors can be quashed.
    Oh, and LOL @ following up on non-meltable exit signs, aka “the stuff we get to scroll past in order to read actual news.”

  • Scar September 14, 2009 (8:09 pm)

    “marginal humans.” Wow.

  • BEA September 14, 2009 (8:30 pm)

    I agree with Laurie.

    Bridge to Somewhere, thanks for the snarky comment. Since my first was not literal enough for you, I’ll try it a different way: Is it really noteworthy, newsworthy or important that the building has no sprinklers or emergency lighting when no one was seriously injured or died and the absence of those features is not a city building code problem?

  • Paul September 14, 2009 (8:44 pm)

    “marginal humans” what a joke – I would say some are acceptional humans. Sad to see other humans with so little compassion for people that are less fortunate than themselves.

  • Matt Durham September 14, 2009 (9:19 pm)

    I’m surprised at the lack of human compassion; especially when rooted in ignorance. I met these people this Sunday and ran into a number of people from Stewart Manor; my impression was that they consisted hard working immigrants, the physically disabled, elderly and a few mentally disabled.
    I also respond to low income housing within my fire department’s jurisdiction and find the make up to be very similar.
    This is not to say there aren’t a few bad seeds. In a 72 unit apartment complex it would only take two units to generate a significant case load of criminal behavior. I feel sorry for the innocent residents.
    If you care enough to cast stones then care enough want to change our world. Demand companies pay a livable wage, demand health insurance for all and fund public schools to the level that provides exceptional education.
    Lastly it is the job of the media to ask hard questions of those in positions of authority. This includes the conditions of government housing.
    That’s news.

  • kstineback September 14, 2009 (10:51 pm)

    I think this is a great follow up Tracy, thank you. I too wondered if the building had been retrofitted to have sprinklers when I saw that black smoke pouring out. I am so glad they got everyone out safely. I completely concur also with Matt above. SHA houses the most vulnerable of our citizens, usually this means elderly, disabled and mentally ill. Most of these folks cannot work, even if they wanted too. This doesn’t make them any less “human”; it often makes them fragile and deserving of assistance. They are not a “hopeless underclass”; they could be your grandmother, brother, friend and they ARE your neighbors, part of our community just like a self-sufficient homeowner down the street. We should all be thankful that SHA provides housing units for these folks, because otherwise many of them might be homeless, unable to afford a market rate apartment in this very expensive town.

  • Michael September 15, 2009 (12:09 am)

    I think a number of you are taking the phase “marginal humans” in a way not intended by its author. (And by doing so, falling into the same trap you think she did.)
    There are some mean, rude, destructive (of their property and that of others) people who take advantage of SHA housing. It’s hard to evict drug dealers or threatening individuals. They bring the standard of living down further for all of their neighbors. Granted there’s not much you can do with such people (they’ve got to live somewhere), but it’s important to acknowledge the conditions that good-but-disadvantaged people have to live in.

  • d September 15, 2009 (12:40 am)

    I’m thinking she probably meant the meaning of “marginalized”, just grabbed the wrong word. Changes the context of her post, if you give her that.

  • bridge to somewhere September 15, 2009 (7:56 am)

    @BEA: you’re welcome! and the answer to your question is: yes! glad to help!

  • sam September 15, 2009 (8:00 am)

    Matt Durham- well said and good photos. thanks-

  • LtFD September 15, 2009 (9:06 am)

    “It would not make sense to sprinkler this building as the residents with their unattended candles and cooking, would set them off all the time”.

    Now, that would actually be the point of having sprinklers in this type of building/occupancy- to control any fire before it spread beyond the room of origin. That is why sprinklers are REQUIRED for this type of building in the newer fire codes. However, the Seattle Fire Code does not require retroactive application of the code to preexisting buildings, unless there is a major renovation or a change of occupancy (apartments becoming condos, sidewalk level retail being added, etc.).

    Smoke is the leading cause of “fire deaths”, not exposure to flames or heat. While the fire might be contained to the unit or origin, the smoke (heat, gases, fumes, vapors, and particles) can spread into hallways and surrounding units, causing injury and death.

    Sprinklers in this instance would have controlled the fire, reducing its severity and its smoke production. The hallway would not have been filled with hot smoke, the visibility & air quality in the exit pathway (hallway, stairs) would have been maintained, and no exit lights would have been melted down the hallway, away from the unit on fire. Sprinklers save lives.

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