Former residents of the Iconic Village and Vintage Pads apartments in San Marcos, where five people died in a fire last week, said they recalled living with faulty smoke detectors and dealing with what they saw as lax management.
Authorities have said five residents — Haley Frizzell, James Miranda, David Ortiz, Dru Estes and Belinda Moats — are unaccounted for, but they have not been officially confirmed dead.
Investigators also say they have not yet determined the fire’s cause.
Residents who escaped the early morning fire last Friday told the American-Statesman they didn’t hear a smoke detector go off. Instead, they were woken by frantic knocking and shouts calling for them to get out, residents said.
For Sarah Christie, who lived on the second floor in Iconic’s Building 500, was at her boyfriend’s house during the fire. She said her roommate did not hear a smoke detector go off and was awoken by screams.
“He opened his door and the fire was already in the living room, so he jumped out the window,” she said. “The main problem, I think, was that there were no fire extinguishers or sprinklers.”
Elevate Multifamily, the manager of Iconic Village and Vintage Pads in San Marcos, said one-, two-, and three-bedroom units have one smoke detector in each bedroom and one in the hallway that are all checked regularly. The efficiency apartments have one smoke detector.
“Every smoke detector in every unit is inspected on a regular basis,” the management company, which took over the property in June 2017, said in an emailed statement. “During these inspections, the maintenance team tests the functionality of every detector. If necessary, new detectors are installed.”
Among the three buildings affected by the fire, Iconic Village’s Building 500 had the most damage. Its detectors had been inspected on May 4; the adjacent Building 300 was inspected May 9; and Building L at Vintage Pads was inspected June 27, the company said.
As part of their investigation, San Marcos fire officials will try to determine whether the smoke detectors functioned properly, city spokeswoman Kristy Stark said.
But former residents said their smoke detectors were faulty and often went off too late.
Maison Mendoza, who lived at Vintage Pads from May 2014 to July 2015, said she had a faulty smoke detector in her kitchen, but did not even have one in her bedroom when she moved in.
Proximity to the Texas State University campus — where Mendoza studies psychology and plans to graduate in August — affordability, and the unit design initially drew her to the apartments.
“I only had one smoke alarm in the kitchen when I moved in. My bedroom did not have one until well after I was living there, and I don’t know if my roommate ever had one,” Mendoza said. “But her broken bedroom door (that didn’t completely close) definitely made us nervous.”
She said the kitchen smoke detector would go off 30 minutes after smoke was produced while cooking in the kitchen.
“Honestly, I don’t remember it being fixed. I just avoided smoky foods as much as possible,” Mendoza said, adding that the detector installed in her bedroom had a dead battery.
Texas law requires every property to have a working smoke detector on move-in day, said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association. But tenants are typically responsible for replacing batteries in detectors and reporting any issues to the apartment employees, he said.
Chandelle Lancaster’s lease at Vintage Pads, where she’s been living for four years, is ending at the end of the month. Her brother, Garrison Lancaster, and his girlfriend, Kelly Ranck, had signed another lease for nine months, but have terminated it since the fire, she said. Lancaster said she doesn’t remember a detector going off during the fire.
“If it did go off, at the time it did, it was too late — we were jumping from our windows. So, I mean, there wasn’t good warning, and I feel like there should have been sprinkler systems outside in the hallway area,” Lancaster said.
No sprinklers were in place at the complex because it was built in 1970 when sprinklers were not required, San Marcos Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said earlier this week.
Adding sprinklers to older buildings could be difficult and costly, depending on the property, the Texas Apartment Association’s Mintz said.
The city of San Marcos adopted the International Fire Code in 2015, city records show. Under the code, no fire protection can be out of service or go unfixed without the approval of a fire code official.
The Local, a downtown San Marcos apartment complex built last year, follows the 2015 International Building Code and International Fire Code and has sprinklers, smoke detectors, and fire extinguishers installed throughout, the complex’s spokesman Craig Wack said.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 118 people died nationally in 85 fires in dorms, off-campus housing and at fraternities and sororities between January 2000 and May 2015. No sprinklers were present in the fires, and 94 percent of them occurred off-campus, according to the administration.
Sprinklers are installed in the majority of Texas State’s nearly two dozen dorms and its apartments at Bobcat Village. Blanco Hall, which was built in 1987, is being retrofitted for sprinklers and Sterry, Lantana, Butler, Arnold, Smith and Bexar Halls also will be retrofitted. All dorms have an updated fire detection system, which includes smoke detectors and an annunciator system linked to the University Police Department’s dispatch service, university spokesman Jayme Blaschke said.
Elevate Multifamily said fire extinguishers are placed in the breezeways of the Iconic complex, and Safequip Safety and Fire Equipment manages the devices. The last fire extinguisher inspection was Jan. 8, Elevate Multifamily said.
Laura Aebi, a former Texas State University communications student who lived in Iconic’s Building 100 in 2013 and 2014, also said her apartment’s smoke detector didn’t work. She reported the detector was not working to management, which did nothing to fix the problem, Aebi said.
“It was kind of an ongoing joke in our household,” Aebi said of the broken detector. “There were always management issues. I really feel like they didn’t care about the safety of their tenants that much.”
Aebi and her roommate realized their detector might not have worked when, while cooking on the stove, their apartment filled with smoke and no alarm went off.
“We were like, ‘Man, if that didn’t set it off, nothing will,’” Aebi said. “We did tell management. They never came by.”
Elevate Multifamily said it has a strong commitment to safety at Iconic Village and they inspect the detectors and extinguishers regularly.
“In the interim between inspections, our standard procedure is for maintenance staff to respond to requests for smoke detector maintenance within two business days. Additionally, a functioning smoke detector is a prerequisite for move-in,” it said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story did not include the date Elevate Multifamily began managing Iconic Village and Vintage Pads apartments. The company took over in June 2017 and would not have been responsible for smoke detectors prior to that date. Also, this story has been edited to clarify what state law requires of landlords with regard to providing smoke detectors to tenants.