Victim's family, landlord at odds about smoke alarm in fatal fire

March 9, 2013 at 10:02 p.m.
Updated March 9, 2013 at 9:10 p.m.

Tommi Turrubiartes said her 12-year-old son would be alive today if a smoke alarm had warned him about a fire.

"They would have at least had that; it would have alarmed them with the noise to wake them up," Turrubiartes said, staring blankly at a photo of her son, Orlando Navarro.

The seventh-grader at Patti Welder Magnet Middle School died Feb. 23 in his bunk bed during the fire on the 1600 block of East Guadalupe Street.

He and his stepfather, Salvador Ochoa, were asleep when the fire ignited about 8:45 a.m. The smoke, not an alarm, woke Ochoa up, Turrubiartes said. But the flames were too intense to get into Orlando's bedroom, even though Ochoa and at least three neighbors tried to rescue the boy.

According to both the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office and the Victoria Fire Marshal's Office, it is "undeterminable" whether the home had a smoke alarm and how the fire started, said Rachel Moreno, of the State Fire Marshal's Office.

"We couldn't find enough evidence to verify if there was or was not," said Victoria Fire Marshal Tom Legler. "It would be attached to the ceiling, and usually we are pulling down ceiling, and the fire causes ceilings to fall. ... We just couldn't find anything. It may have been there, it may not. We don't know."

Despite the ruling, Turrubiartes said she is certain the house had no smoke alarms.

However, Bernard T. Klimist, attorney for ALMS Properties, a nonprofit renting organization, said the house did have smoke alarms.

"We have agreed not to tear the house down, and we want to cooperate in any way we can with the investigation because quite honestly, this is a tragedy," Klimist said.

Turrubiartes said she did not know Texas law requires landlords to install smoke detectors on rental properties and in all bedrooms and dwelling areas. She also said it never occurred to her to install detectors on her own.

Legler said if a rental does not have smoke alarms properly installed, the leasers should approach their landlords with the issue.

If they do not install or fix the smoke detectors, Legler said, it becomes a civil suit with the complex and is grounds to break a lease. The landlord is not required to provide batteries.

The Fire Marshal's Office also gives away smoke alarms and batteries to those who need help obtaining one and will install them at residences.

Legler said the city donates about 75 smoke detectors annually and has fire safety events throughout the year. The Fire Marshal's Office was at Victoria Mall on Saturday for fire prevention education.

The department is low on smoke detectors but accepts donations of the device or money to buy more.

Even if smoke alarms are installed, Legler said, they still don't help if the batteries are not working.

Residents should check their smoke alarms once a month and change the batteries twice each year.

"It is a tough thing to remember. Make a note on your calendar or do it on a particular day. ... It is important to establish that habit," Legler said.

About two-thirds of home fire deaths occur in homes without working smoke alarms, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Turrubiartes, whose family lived in the house for two years, thinks smoke alarms would have changed their lives forever.



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