High-rise fire reignites concern: Sprinklers absent in older buildings

Residents also concerned about elderly and disabled living on high floors

SAN ANTONIO – After Friday's fire at a San Antonio Housing Authority high-rise on the Southeast Side, residents were left with two main concerns: A lack of sprinklers and elderly or disabled people living on high floors.

The fire at the Fair Avenue Apartments injured one person but caused hundreds to evacuate. 

Residents forced to evacuate during high-rise apartment fire

Daylight brought a new view of the apartments and also new questions. Friday's fire worried many tenants, most of whom are elderly or disabled.

"I opened the small balcony door and there was a lot of smoke. I had to leave my walker and I had to come downstairs on my cane," said sixth-floor resident Henry Alvarado.

That's a difficult task for Alvarado, who rarely goes without his walker.

"Boy, it’s a long way down from the sixth floor. They ought to put the seniors downstairs," he said.

SAHA said Monday that there is no law requiring seniors or the disabled to live on lower floors of high rise buildings.

In a statement, SAHA said the San Antonio Fire Department's Community Safety and Education Division

"Provided training for Fair Avenue apartment residents in March and Fire Wardens reviewed safety protocol in guiding wheelchair- and walker-bound residents to shelter in exit stairwells, and evacuate with assistants and the fire department. To ensure all residents have an opportunity to choose where they want to live, Section 504 prohibits housing providers from requiring persons with disabilities to live only on certain floors or to all live in one section of a housing community. If a senior or disabled resident requests a lower unit, the resident can request a reasonable accommodation. Once the accommodation is verified, SAHA will place the resident on a transfer list for the next available unit that can meet the need of the resident."

David Garcia is disabled and lives on the eleventh floor, and is most concerned that the 46-year-old building still doesn't have sprinklers.

The city only recently started requiring sprinklers for high-rises. City Council mandated the change after a fire at the Wedgwood senior living apartment building in Castle Hills that killed six people in December 2014.

Council approves fire code change regarding high-rise sprinklers

"I do not blame the management. People cannot control what happens here, but the sprinklers were promised for the longest time and that should have been done back in 2010," Garcia said.

Two previous fires at the high-rise were in July 2009 on the seventh floor, and October 2010 on the ninth floor. 

"It's just an accident waiting to happen. Something ... has to be done," Garcia said.

SAHA oversees three public housing high-rises, including Fair Avenue, that are scheduled for improvements to bring them up to code.

The agency said, "The Victoria Plaza community, currently vacant, is being retrofitted. Fair Avenue Apartments and Villa Tranchese Apartments will be retrofitted over the next six years, which is half the time mandated by the city’s ordinance."

That construction to install sprinklers should start spring of 2018 and take a year to complete, while people stay in their apartments. 

Investigators have not released the cause of the fire but say it was contained to one unit, which is a total loss. The estimated damage is $80,000.

The only families that have been relocated are those right next to that unit, but they're expected to return home Tuesday.

The man injured in the fire was taken to San Antonio Military Medical Center. An update on his condition was not provided.

About the Author:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.