This city's deadliest fire in almost half a century roared through a nursing home before dawn today, killing 10 residents and forcing the evacuation of more than 100 elderly and disabled men and women, most on stretchers and in wheelchairs.
Police and residents' relatives said investigators have detained a 23-year-old female resident of the Greenwood Health Center, but authorities emphasized she is not in police custody and said they did not know if the fire was an accident or was set intentionally.
Witnesses and rescue officials described a horrifying rush to safety as disabled men and women wearing no more than bedclothes were carried out of blinding smoke and heat into 13-degree night air. Fire Chief Charles Teale said everyone seemed too stunned even to scream or cry. "There was a form of silence that is difficult to describe," he said.
The dead ranged in age from Daniel Henriques, 27, who a relative said was paralyzed from a stabbing, to Shirley Bergeron and Joanne Napoli, both 76. All died of smoke inhalation, said Fire Marshal William Abbott. Another 19 residents were hospitalized, 10 in critical condition, state health officials said.
Police Chief Bruce Marquis said officers have not been able to interview the resident who has been detained. "The person is under the care of medical professionals and deemed not stable at the moment," he said. He declined to say whether the resident -- whose gender he would not confirm -- was injured in the fire.
Abbott said the fire destroyed a wing of the facility with about a dozen double rooms, but did not spread to other areas. It was brought under control within 15 minutes after the first alarm, at 2:40 a.m., Teale said.
Teale said the nursing supervisor, Marion Schumacher, remained in the smoke-choked facility helping firefighters locate and remove oxygen tanks that might otherwise have exploded. "The firefighters couldn't see their hands in front of their faces, and she was checking the residents' pulse so we would know who to remove first and telling the firefighters how to handle the patients," Teale said.
"She's become a symbol of what the words 'commitment' and 'dedication' mean," Teale said, adding that he believes the death toll might have been considerably higher without her help.
Schumacher was treated for smoke inhalation and released from the hospital. Mayor Eddie Perez said she had returned to the nursing home to work and did not want to be singled out for more credit than the other nurses.
Residents' relatives converged on the one-story nursing home in western Hartford throughout the morning, desperate for information about their loved ones. Debbie Duford of Farmington was seeking word of her 53-year-old brother, who is mentally retarded and has been receiving care for a tracheotomy. She went to his window and gasped as he suddenly pulled back the curtain, appearing before her "like an angel," she said.
"He was pretty expressionless, but we both put our hands on the glass and he put his thumbs up. I was thrilled," she said. Greenwood Health Center, which had 148 residents, is licensed by the state as a skilled nursing facility, caring for the elderly, psychiatric patients, people with disabilities and patients needing rehabilitation. State officials said it recently had passed inspections for health care and fire safety and was in compliance with all requirements. The center did not have a sprinkler, which is not required in a one-story facility, said Wendy Furniss, director of health system regulation in the state health department.
The center had 12 staff members on duty at the time of the fire. Furniss said that exceeded state staffing requirements for 148 residents on an overnight shift.
The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations last year accredited the center "with requirements for improvement" -- the second-highest of five grade levels. None of the required improvements was related to the fire, an official said.
Relatives were not allowed to see residents for several hours after the fire was contained because authorities designated the nursing home a crime scene and said they did not want evidence disturbed. Marcia McCrory said she had talked by phone to her 64-year-old mother, a paraplegic, at 4:30 a.m. and knew she was okay.
"She told me she smelled smoke and then she just started crying," said McCrory, who along with other family members called the nursing home staff compassionate and attentive.
Alan Soroka, the nursing home's medical director, said he was surprised that more people did not become ill as a result of the trauma and the shock of being dislodged from bed by smoke, then thrust into the cold. He said he attributed this in part to the stability of the nursing staff, who knew most residents well.