Building in flames, tenants wonder why they didn’t wake up earlier – WFTV
VIDEO: Building in flames, tenants wonder why they didn’t wake up earlier The East Millenia Fire Islands drew national attention for the heroic actions of a group of MPs who scaled the building’s balconies to save a baby. (WFTV)
ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Stephanie Buonfiglio and Christian Regalo only had a few bags to their names. Most of them were hastily piled up against a corner of their hotel suite or shoved into the lonely closet next to their queen bed. The studio-style room was comfortable, but sterile. The smell of fresh sheets and bleach that normally accompanied the view was long gone.
For 19 days, the couple had called the room at home, with their roommate who had been discreet for the interview. The three adults were rarely out, leaving only to take the dog out, buy food or visit the site of their former home.
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This house, a two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a nearby complex, was a smoking ruin. A fire ravaged it in the middle of the night at the end of April, forever marking in their minds memories that were hard to shake.
“It was so hard to breathe,” Regalo recalled. “They were lying on the balcony floor – through the holes in the balcony gasping for air.”
The East Millenia Fire Islands has drawn national attention for the heroic actions of a group of MPs who scaled the balconies of the building to save a terrified one-year-old child. Buonfiglio and Regalo said they occupied the balcony next door. Buonfiglio had woken Regalo, who quickly realized the fire was about to engulf their unit before leading the others to the balcony to wait to be rescued.
They said they clearly remembered the time they woke up: 4:30 a.m., a full 19 minutes after the Orange County Fire Rescue incident report showed first responders were alerted to the fire and several minutes after the first fire engines entered the parking lot.
They said it was not some kind of alarm that woke them up, but that they were suffocating in the thick smoke. As they recall, the smoke detectors in their unit – which they had moved to three weeks earlier – were not working.
“We should have been woken up by fire alarms, not to smoke, especially with the amount of smoke billowing from the first to the third floor,” Regalo said bitterly. Buonfiglio added that they were told their detector had been checked a month before they moved in to ensure it was in working order, but the duo had not tested it themselves.
WFTV’s own videos and footage from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office body camera both feature faint but distinct beeps within the first few minutes of the fire. Alarms had gone off somewhere in the building, but it was unclear what type they were or what units had been alerted. The OCFR incident report mentioned that detectors had alerted occupants to the fire, but gave no details.
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The incident report showed the building was equipped with smoke detectors, but not a sprinkler system to suppress anything that might burst into the structure. The report also didn’t say whether all the detectors were working, though officials said that was something they would look into.
Documents dating back to 2018 detailed a history of failed fire inspections at the resort, which was cited for various issues, including problems with the buildings’ alarm systems. On several occasions, the inspectors say, they were called because the systems were not sufficiently inspected, were not working properly or were causing false alarms. The resort was forced to pay a fee after such a call.
The OCFR incident report does not mention any problems with the building’s alarm system during the night of the fire.
WFTV reached out multiple times over the course of two weeks to see if the property management company would answer questions or provide context and explanation about the complex’s smoke detectors, fire alarms and failed inspections. None of the messages generated a response.
Independent property managers said fire inspections were easier to pass than a restaurant health code inspection, which is notorious for ringing kitchens for the smallest mistakes. Orange County, in particular, was considered an easier inspection to perform than smaller municipalities, as long as companies were proactive in maintaining their systems, officials said.
Contacted for comment, an OCFR spokeswoman said it depends on the institution.
“Apartment buildings are considered ‘high risk’ occupancies and require annual fire inspections. However, depending on the building, the life safety systems installed may require more frequent maintenance,” she said. “As far as pass/fail issues go, it’s all over the place. Some apartments pass while others have continuous and chronic violations.
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During their interview, Buonfiglio and Regalo mentioned other issues with how their valuables were handled since the fire, especially the remains of their three pets which did not survive. They have since managed to find a house to rent that has allowed them to leave their hotel room for a more suitable environment, and have set up a GoFundMe to enable them to rebuild their lives.
“I feel like we’re on the way,” Regalo said. “There’s still a part of me that means, [but] it feels so low.
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