Ash Street Apt. Fire Cleanup Raises Questions of Responsibility
COLUMBIA - Many of Rebecca Rodriguez-Carey and Jason Carey's personal belongings remain in their burned out apartment unit at the Ash Street Apartments in Columbia, according to the couple.
A fire tore through their building--Building 3--on the morning of April 9. No one was injured in the blaze, but several apartments were badly damaged.
"We were one of the six apartments who were labeled severely and heavily damaged," said Rebecca, who is working on her Ph.D at the University of Missouri.
The couple was not home when fire broke out, but said many of their personal belongings were in the apartment at the time of the fire.
"Everything we owned was in there," said Rebecca. "The only items we have in our new place from the fire is the clothes we were wearing that day."
Initially after the fire was out, fire crews gave residents the okay to quickly go back into the apartments to gather up some belongings. Jason said the couple grabbed what they could during the time they were allowed in the building.
"We grabbed a few minor things that we could in the five minutes we were in that we knew we needed or had some sort of monetary value," said Jason. "And we were very optimistic that we could get back in."
It's been more than one month since the fire, but Rebecca and Jason said they have not been allowed back into their unit to retrieve the rest of their property.
In a letter to tenants affected by the fire, Mills Properties, the St. Louis-based company that manages the Ash Street Apartments, said the company had "been advised that the April 9 fire caused the release of asbestos into the air in some individual apartment units." The letter read, "We [Mills Properties] have consulted asbestos control experts, and have learned that we cannot rule out the possibility that the individual apartment units at Ash Street Place Apartments were exposed to airborne asbestos after the fire." Because of the possible contamination, the letter goes on to read, "We will not allow you to access any apartment unit or the personal property or contents that still remain in the apartment units."
Mark Farnen, a local spokesman for Mills Properties, said the decision to not let people in the building was made with residents' safety in mind and in consultation with United Services, a disaster restoration service hired by Mill Properties' insurance to handle the structural clean up inside the Ash Street Apartment units.
"The advice to not allow people to go in was provided by the preliminary test that we got through United and Mills has made a decision to not allow former residents and their employees in there without safety suits," said Farnen. "The decision was made by Mills because it's their property on the good advice of experts in the field."
"You have to do the testing over time. You can get different results from different parts of the building on different days," said Farnen.
Jason questions the need to withhold all items in the building.
"The problem with that is he has no evidence," said Jason. "They did no asbestos testing the day of the fire or the day after the fire when it rained,"
The Carey's said they picked up the letter from Mills Properties at the Ash Street Apartments leasing office on June 30. The letter goes on to state that on May 1 "We expect that the disposal of of the property and contents in the apartment units will begin."
"That's very alarming, considering it's our property," said Rebecca.
"I think they were trying to look into the future and say 'well if everything goes well we can try and start to get this place cleaned up by May 1,'" said Farnen in regards to the letter.
Rebecca, Jason, and 10 other residents filed for restraining orders against Mills Properties. A court order from May 13 handed down by Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler instructs Mills Properties and United Services "not to dispose of, and hold and keep safe each plaintiff's personal property that is contained in the Plaintiff's apartment unit or otherwise in the Defendant's possession."
According to the restraining order, Mills Properties and United Services are not to throw away any personal belongings of the 12 plaintiffs unless "the Plaintiff authorizes in writing the disposal of the personal property or unless otherwise ordered by the Court."
Farnen said this was Mills Properties' intention all along.
"Mills indicated they would not destroy or dispose of any items unless they had a signed form," said Farnen.
But Rebecca said she never received a consent form.
"They [Mills] have made available a consent form that would allow people to give them [Mills] the right to dispose of that property," said Farnen. "Did everybody receive that? I can't say that for sure."
"But the fact that we have signed releases from people means that we offered them," said Farnen.
KOMU 8 News requested a copy of that consent form which was available to residents after the fire. Farnen obtained a copy for us, but it was under the letter head of United Services. Mills Properties said it was not sure how many people signed consent but had four completed forms on hand in the Ash Street Apartment leasing office.
Farnen said he could not provide specifics on what work United Services has already done in the burned building so far. "I'm not sure of the complete extent, but part of their responsibility is to stabilize the building, begin the process of getting it dried out," said Farnen.
KOMU 8 News contacted United Services owner Brad Weston about his company's business with Mills Properties, but Weston had no comment.
Ten residents are now part a lawsuit against Mills Properties and United Services. The plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages from the companies according to the prosecution attorney Matt Uhrig.
The lawsuit claims Mills Properties knew that the building contained asbestos but did not disclose that information to residents. Plaintiffs are also seeking damages for the Ash Street Apartments for not following Columbia fire code regarding the instalation of pull down fire alarms.
"They're really not being forth right with the residents and tenants," said Rebecca.
"Mills has been in discussions with all of the tenants at some point. They've rebated their [April] rent, they have allowed people to get their security deposits back, and they've helped them with relocation," said Farnen.
But Rebecca said it isn't about the money.
"I received a letter from them that apologized for the inconvenience," said Rebecca. "We were left homeless for several weeks... and so that simply can't be taken care of with an inconvenience letter or financial gain."
Columbia Fire Department reported faulty wiring in a light fixture as the cause of the fire.