May 15, 2011

Fire Official Says Alcohol, Lack of Sprinklers Likely Factors in Fatal Fire

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Correction appended

Alcohol and improper fire safety precautions, including a lack of sprinklers, may have played a large role in the death of Brian Lo ’11, Deputy Fire Chief Tom Parsons ’82 said in a Collegetown Neighborhood Association meeting Tuesday.

Lo died in a house fire at 107 Cook Street on May 6. The fire began around midnight and burned uncontrolled for about three hours, according to Parsons. Six or seven other residents were able to evacuate the building, he said.

Parsons said that although there is currently no “definitive data” linking Lo’s death to inebriation, he “had suspicions it was involved in this case.”

“The reason I suspect alcohol was involved is because it was Thursday night and people who lived in the house had been partying,” Parsons said. “The smoke alarms were working. He should have been able to get out — we’re trying to figure out what happened.”

Results from an autopsy conducted on May 7 will conclusively determine if Lo was inebriated when he died, Parsons added.

Other city officials cited building renovations in Collegetown that have made many houses structurally unsafe as a contributing factor in Lo’s death.

Dividing single-family houses to make apartments for seven to nine tenants may reduce the safety of the students living in those buildings, and it becomes more difficult for emergency services to reach victims, according to officials at the meeting.

Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th Ward) added that the lack of fire sprinklers in many houses in Collegetown and on the Cornell campus — including at 107 Cook Street — is a major concern for public officials.

“It is required that there be sprinklers in any new residential building with multiple occupancies, but when these houses were chopped up, they got grandfathered in and no sprinklers were added,” Myrick said.

Despite the lack of sprinklers at 107 Cook Street, Parsons said that the fire “was not a landlord issue” and that “everything the property owner was supposed to do, he did.”

“Sometimes their buildings are purchased with inherited problems, especially when it comes to fire safety and fire prevention,” Parsons said.

Former Common Council member Mary Tomlan ’71 said that she thought the best solution for improving the safety of students living in Collegetown would be to turn some of the houses back into single-family residences.

However, Tomlan also said that she realized such a solution would be more challenging because “not all the students wish to live in apartment buildings. Some like to live in a building that remains as a family house because they act as a family.”

Eddie Rooker ’10 (D-4th Ward) stressed the need to thoroughly investigate any steps that may prevent a similar tragedy in the coming months.

“This can come in a variety of forms,” Rooker said. “Examples of which could be educational resources, changes to building code requirements that pertain to fire safety, such as sprinkler systems, or incentives to create an up-to-date and safer rental housing stock throughout Ithaca.”

Parsons said that trying to improve fire safety in the wake of Lo’s death remains a challenge.

“We’re completely studying everything and trying to figure out how we can prevent this from happening again,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gary Stewart discussed the possibility that building renovations decreased the safety of Collegetown housing. In fact, Deputy Fire Chief Tom Parsons ’82 and other city officials discussed this risk.

Original Author: Liz Camuti