TARRANT COUNTY -- Tarrant County and Benbrook investigators are working to determine the cause of a fatal overnight apartment fire. But the initial investigation shows the 39-year-old complex is up to code with battery-powered smoke detectors in each unit.
The Tarrant County Fire Marshal says the fire appears to have started in an outside breezeway connecting two separate buildings at the Nicholas Place Apartments on Williams Road in Benbrook. By the time the fire spread inside eight units and within reach of their smoke detectors, the blaze was already raging.
“My God, seriously I feel like I could easily be dead. That was like the scariest thing I’ve ever been through,” said Samantha Amason who escaped the fire by jumping out her second-floor apartment window. The flames and smoke were blocking her front door. “All of the sudden it was flames everywhere, smoke everywhere.”
Amason returned to the complex early Friday afternoon to search for the glasses she lost when she and her roommate jumped to a hedge at the side of their building.
“The fire just knocked me on out the door practically. I mean it was that close already,” said Susie Morgan who lives in the apartment below Amason.
A second-floor resident did not survive. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner identified the resident as 52-year-old Donald Clowers. Neighbors say he did not die because he didn’t get alerted to the fire in time. They say he died because he chose to go back inside the building to save his three dogs and then could not escape a second time.
“Somebody heard his wife saying leave ‘em. She was telling him to leave the dog,” said neighbor Ronald Stewart. “So that tells me he was trying to go back.”
Records show the Nicholas Place Apartments were built in 1978. By law smoke detectors are required and residents tell Channel 8 News there were as many as three in each apartment and that they are battery powered only and not connected to an electrical system or linked to an overall alarm system. Sprinkler systems are not a required retrofit in a building this old. Apartment managers declined to talk to reporters when asked who is responsible, management or residents, for maintaining the smoke detectors and their batteries.
Smoke detector maintenance can differ depending on your rental location and your lease. But according to Texas Tenant Advisor a landlord is required to provide working smoke detectors at the time an apartment is rented. But the landlord “is not obligated to provide replacement batteries for a battery-operated smoke detector, as long as it was operating when the tenant moved in.”
Meanwhile survivors, with mixed feelings, try to start over while mourning the neighbor they lost.
“It’s a sad day,” said Ronald Stewart. ”And a thankful day.”
The residents of 12 units have been displaced by fire, smoke, and water damage. The Tarrant County Fire Marshall says it is far too early to determine a cause but that neither accidental nor intentional causes have been ruled out.