Press-Republican

October 30, 2013

Power chair cleared in fatal DeChantal Apartments fire

By SUZANNE MOORE, News Editor and KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — SARANAC LAKE — It is unlikely Rose Schoonmaker’s power chair sparked the fire that took the elderly woman’s life in her room at DeChantal Apartments on Sunday.

“Due to the many concerns of power-chair users,” officials said in a statement released Tuesday, “fire officials wanted to inform the general public that although the power chair was involved in the fire, it has been ruled out as the cause of the fire.”

Nor, they said, did it appear the 91-year-old woman’s home oxygen system was at fault.

The officials from several agencies also recognized “the heroic efforts” of three residents who tried to rescue Mrs. Schoonmaker and to quench the flames.

“These residents reacted without any concern for their own safety and put their own lives in serious jeopardy in their attempt to rescue Rose,” officials said in a joint statement from Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, the Franklin County Office of Emergency Services, Saranac Lake Police Department and the Franklin County Coroner’s Office.

Mrs. Schoonmaker died at Adirondack Medical Center after being pulled from the blaze by firefighters.

Her apartment on the fifth floor of the 10-story DeChantal Apartments was the only one damaged in the morning fire, but many tenants were evacuated as a precaution that day.

Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough said the fire wasn’t considered suspicious.

The preliminary findings of an investigation that continued on Tuesday confirmed that and also indicated the fatal blaze was accidental in nature.

LENGTHY INVESTIGATION

Wayne Feinberg, manager of the senior housing complex, said state investigators from the Office of Fire Prevention and Control were at the site for five or six hours Sunday.

Monday and Tuesday, the agency continued looking into the cause of the fatal blaze, along with the Franklin County Cause and Origin Team, the Coroner’s Office and Saranac Lake Police.

The investigation, state officials told the Saranac Lake Fire Department, will take three to four weeks to complete.

LADDER TRUCK

The fire was reported about 8 a.m., and within minutes, firefighters from Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department were at the building with a truck ladder raised to the fifth-floor window, he said.

“The fire was contained to just one part of one unit,” Feinberg told the Press-Republican on Monday. “It appeared to be personal property in the unit was what burned. We are waiting to hear the full investigation of everything that happened and what caused it.”

Keough said Mrs. Schoonmaker had lived locally since about 1983 with two grandchildren in the area.

Since the fire was an active investigation, he could say little about how it started.

“The fire was between her and her egress out of the apartment,” Keough said.

LONGTIME RESIDENT

A charred, motorized scooter type of wheelchair, heavily damaged by fire, was removed from the apartment, Feinberg said.

“It’s like a battery-powered wheelchair that can be recharged. It seemed like that was the main item that burned in the unit.

“She used that scooter to get everywhere around town. People would see her all over the place in that thing, riding down the sidewalks,” he said.

“Neighboring tenants in the building spoke highly of her. It was impressive how mobile she was for her age,” he continued. 

”People saw her routinely at stores all over the place on her scooter.”

Schoonmaker had lived in the senior housing for more than two decades, he said.

TRIED TO HELP

Feinberg said a resident who tried to help Mrs. Schoolmaker escape the fire was taken to Adirondack Medical Center, where she was admitted for treatment.

Family had visited her Sunday evening, and the elderly patient, a woman, was expected to be able to return to her apartment on Monday.

INTERIOR HYDRANTS

The DeChantal Apartments building itself performed well structurally in terms of containing the blaze, the manager said. 

And the Fire Department, which has trained specifically to respond to the 10-story brick complex, performed with expertise, he said.

“The damages were wholly contained to one unit. It was not the building that appeared to have burned. It took very little water to stop the fire.”

Firefighters were able to use the fire-control hydrant system inside the structure and put the fire out with the hose on the building’s fifth floor.

Keough said the DeChantal building is not equipped with a sprinkler system, as it was built before such devices were commonplace.

“The building has a stand-pipe hydrant system,” the fire chief said, “with fire hoses connected to a water supply on every floor.”

The chief said fire crews did a great job of getting to the location and getting Schoonmaker out of the building.

“The Saranac Lake Fire Department was absolutely phenomenal; they’ve done drills at the building,” Feinberg said.

“They also systematically and efficiently went to every room and accounted for every person that was supposed to be in the building.”

INSPECTIONS CURRENT

The senior high-rise complex is up to date on all local, state and federal inspections, Feinberg said.

“It is inspected annually and also undergoes Housing and Urban Development inspections and New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal inspections,” Feinberg said.

In all, 110 DeChantal residents were evacuated during the fire, but they were allowed back into their apartments at about 7 p.m. Sunday. 

The Fire Department and high-rise staff tested the alarms “to make sure everything was working again,” the building manager said.

“The Fire Department turned everything over to the code officers. They then turned the building back over to us (building management).

“Then the tenants were allowed to go back to their units.”

Amid the tragic loss to the elderly community, Feinberg said, the very fast and tactical fire response was key in preventing any other damage or fatalities.

RESTAURANTS STEP UP

Some of the displaced seniors had gone to stay with family or friends for the day. Others went to area churches to wait out the inspection.

And some were able to wait in the first-floor community room starting at about 8:30 a.m., where, Feinberg said, area restaurants came in and served lunch and dinner.

“Word in the building came after lunchtime that (Mrs. Schoonmaker) had passed away,” he said.

’ABOVE AND BEYOND’

In the statement, the Fire Department expressed appreciation to the managers, custodian staff and all those who make their homes at DeChantel Apartments. 

“This was a large incident, and their patience and cooperation greatly assisted emergency service personnel with the evacuation, accountability of residents and being able to respond to the fire and various medical emergencies at the scene.”

As for the three residents who attempted to save Mrs. Schoonmaker, officials added, “their efforts were above and beyond.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com