In what appears to be one of San Antonio’s worst disasters in recent memory, a fire broke out at Wedgwood Senior Apartments at around 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, December 28. Five residents were confirmed dead initially, and more than a dozen were injured as a result of the fire. Sadly, a sixth resident died two days after the fire. About 150 firefighters responded to the three-alarm fire to evacuate residents, many of whom needed assistance due to mobility impairments. Firefighters also returned to the building during the fire to retrieve much-needed medications for residents.
The elderly evacuees were first sent to an emergency shelter at Churchill High School where the Red Cross provided them with comfort kits and then began making longer-term arrangements for their accommodations as it is unknown when, or even if, they will be able to return to their apartments.
Officials are beginning their investigation into the cause of the fire. While it is unclear what started the fire or how it spread, the third floor of the building appears to have been damaged severely. Another factor contributing to the severity of the fire was the outdated regulations that applied to the high-rise building. Because it was built in 1965, it was grandfathered in when new building codes have been implemented. For example, the 2012 International Building Code requires buildings like the Wedgwood Senior Apartments to have sprinkler systems, but these apartments did not have them because the building was not required by law to be retrofitted to abide by the new codes.
This tragedy is horrific, and our thoughts are with the victims and their families during this time of mourning. We are also grateful that more were not injured or killed as many residents were not in the building that morning because they were out visiting friends and family for the holidays.
Officials such as the mayor of Castle Hills, Tim Howell, have expressed that this fire will be an occasion to review the city ordinances. Hopefully it will also be a somber impetus for other building managers to update and retrofit their establishments to make them safer – regardless of whether those safety measures are required by law or not.
At Crosley Law Firm, it has been our experience in similar cases that there is an element of negligence on the part of building owners and management when a catastrophe such as this one turns deadly. Even though the building may not have been required to be brought up to code, this does not limit the landlord’s or the manager’s legal responsibility to provide a safe premises free from dangerous or defective conditions.
In virtually every case we have been involved in where an exhaustive investigation is performed, we are able to prove that basic safety systems could have reduced or eliminated the dangers involved. Often these investigations take place within the confines of formal legal action, such as a lawsuit. Subpoenas are issued; documents are obtained and reviewed. Fire safety experts and officials perform their analysis and may give testimony. Other witness depositions are taken. We hope that such an investigation is performed on behalf of the victims of this fire and their families, and we stand ready to undertake such an investigation upon request.