PHILADELPHIA — The cause of the deadly Nov. 16, 2017, blaze at the Barclay Friends Assisted Living Center has been ruled “undetermined,” according to a Thursday release from The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Philadelphia Field Division and the Chester County Fire Marshal's Office.
One startling conclusion in the report: When investigators first visited the site, the main sprinkler valve was found in the "off" position.
“Despite extensive testing and interviews, investigators were unable to determine when the valve was turned off,” reads the ATF news release. “Based on the totality of the investigation, it is the belief of the investigators that it was off during the fire.”
The cause of the deadly inferno was ruled “undetermined.”
More than 60 ATF agents investigated over the Thanksgiving weekend.
“After more than 300 interviews, a systematic fire-scene examination and re-creation, the review of witness photos, videos and observations, as well as extensive scientific testing at the ATF Fire Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, the cause of the fire has been ruled 'undetermined.'"
On Nov. 16, 2017, at approximately 10:45 p.m., first-responders from West Chester Fire and Police Departments, as well as numerous surrounding fire departments in the area, arrived on scene shortly after the first call was made to 911. They found a large portion of the Woolman building fully involved with fire upon arrival.
The responding police officers and fire departments acted swiftly in assisting with the evacuation of 152 residents and staff members and then turned efforts to fighting the fire.
Four residents, including a husband and wife, were killed by the fast moving five–alarm blaze. Many first responders said that the tragedy could have turned much worse without the valiant work and dedication of first responders.
About 35 ambulances lined borough streets as firefighters fought the blaze that was still smoking at first light.
Barclay staffers received the go-ahead from the borough to add 60 little apartments, or one-bedroom apartments and studios, including 20 beds dedicated to memory care.
A 61,000-square-foot, two–story structure, with a basement built below grade, will be constructed from steel and concrete. It will replace the 48-bed, 38,000-square-foot building. The new building will add another 12 units and the entire structure will be interconnected.
Based on the investigation and witness statements, the ATF determined the origin of the fire to the rear garden room, an outdoor patio, located beneath an overhang. The exact origin is unknown due to the extensive damage caused by the flame.
The ATF reported: “According to initial fire alarm data and witnesses, the smoke and fire alarms acted as designed with audible sirens and strobes activating upon smoke impingement on the smoke detectors within the garden room, causing the fire doors to shut. Residents and staff reported hearing these alarms and quickly started to evacuate the building.”
High winds fueled the flames and the flammability of the vinyl siding on the building and absence of exterior sprinklers, which are not currently required by code.
“The fire was able to intensify and spread rapidly to the roof and other parts of the building,” according to the ATF.
State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19th Dist., a member of the Pennsylvania Emergency Preparedness Committee, said he will work to ensure such a tragedy never occurs again.
“While we may never know what caused the fire at the Barclay Friends that fateful night, we do know that the main sprinkler should have been on," he said. "I am committed to working with the local codes, fire, emergency response, and law enforcement community, as well the Office of the State Fire Commissioner, to consider and develop legislative, policy, and regulatory changes to help to ensure that this never happens again. Just as the community pitched in to save and assist residents on the night of the fire, our continued work to prevent such tragedies must be a collaborative effort.”
The ATF reported that there is no indication that the fire was intentionally set.
"Investigating a fire of this size is truly a team effort," said ATF Philadelphia Field Division Special Agent in Charge, Donald Robinson. "We appreciate the dedication of our personnel as well as all of the state and local partners who worked tirelessly to thoroughly investigate this fire in an attempt to determine the fire's origin and cause."
Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan stated, “From the roaring flames of that night, to the grim months of investigation that followed, we have never forgotten the four Chester County citizens who died in that fire. Working together, we exhausted every avenue of investigation possible.
“We appreciate the heroism of the first firefighters on the scene as they saved countless lives, the diligent efforts of ATF and the Fire Marshal’s Office in the investigation, and the patience and fortitude of the victims’ families as this investigation concluded.”
“Five West Chester uniformed officers were the first to arrive on scene, entered the building without any protective equipment and evacuated many residents,” West Chester Police Chief Scott Bohn said. “These officers acted heroically.
“I am grateful to all of our first responders, police/fire/EMS, as well as the community response that evening. My thoughts and prayers remain with those who lost their lives and those impacted by this tragic event.”
Chester County Fire Marshal John Weer stated: "Because of the extensive efforts of the West Chester Fire Department, many lives were saved that night. With the intensity of this fire prior to notification, many heroic efforts were carried out.
“Heavy hearts are with these men and women for the losses of life and our sincere thoughts are with their families.
“It is because of the training and daily working relationship of agencies federally, state and locally that this investigation was conducted as a team effort. This commitment in Chester County has proven that teamwork on all levels proves that working together provides the best for our residents.
“With the overall magnitude of this fire investigation, the knowledge and assistance from the ATF both locally and nationally was a huge aid to the overall investigation of this tragic fire."
The families of the four elderly citizens who died in the fire were previously advised in person about the results of this investigation and had the opportunity to discuss the event with the investigators, according to the ATF.
While Philadelphia law firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett and Bendesky P.C.’s case against the Barclay has been “resolved confidentially,” the law firm is still pursuing a case against maintenance company Johnson Controls.
Lawyer Bob Mongeluzzi said that the critical element leading to the four deaths was the lack of an alarm to warn that the sprinkler valve and tamper switch were shut off.
“It’s an issue of both the design and operation of the fire suppression system,” Mongeluzzi said. “We had indicated that the valve to the fire suppression system was shut off.
“The ATF report substantiated it.”
While the ATF ruled the cause as “undetermined,” the law firm’s investigation turned up a probable cause, Mongeluzzi said.
“We believe that we will still be able to prove that the fire was likely a result of cigarette smoking,” he said.
All of the agencies involved have pledged to continue assisting these families with any information they need. The fire investigation was a collaborative effort and worked in coordination with the Chester County District Attorney's Office, Chester County Fire Marshal's Office, Pennsylvania State Police, West Chester Police Department, Chester County Sheriff’s Office and Chester County Department of Emergency Services.
Anyone having information regarding this fire is urged to call the ATF 24/7 hotline at 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888- 283-3473), email: A TFTips@atf.gov (l ink sends e-mail) or submit a tip anonymously by using the Reportlt App on your mobile phone. More information about ATF's fire investigation expertise or the NRT can be found at www.atf.gov.