Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Public safety

Family sues Section 8 landlord in fatal Tampa fire

TAMPA — Six months after an annual inspection discovered no working smoke detectors in Terrence McGriff's Section 8 house, a fire killed McGriff.

When firefighters arrived, he was passed out 3 feet from the door. And once again, the smoke detectors were not working, the Tampa Fire Marshal's Office discovered.

Smoke detectors are required in Tampa's Section 8 homes. Firefighters say they save lives. So why weren't McGriff's working?

It's the central question in a mystery playing out in civil court.

• • •

On Oct. 31, an inspector visited the peach-colored house in East Tampa and found a laundry list of problems.

Two stove burners were not working. Security bars blocked potential window exits. Both of the home's smoke detectors were not working.

By December, the landlord had fixed most of the problems — including the smoke detectors. But one burner still did not work. Because of that, the Tampa Housing Authority stopped its monthly $587 contributions to McGriff's rent. A month later, the agency terminated McGriff, 30, from the program because the stove burner was still not fixed.

But at last check on Dec. 11, the smoke detectors were working.

Anita McGriff denies that. She told the Tampa Bay Times the landlord never replaced the smoke detectors. She said she and her son tried calling the landlord and never heard back.

This month, she filed a lawsuit against KRRS Properties and 4M Property Management. A lawyer from Morgan & Morgan's Orlando office is representing her.

According to the lawsuit, the landlord and property manager should have known there were no working smoke detectors when the fire broke out April 16.

In Tampa, qualified homeowners can rent properties to Section 8 recipients through the Tampa Housing Authority.

One of the requirements is that the home is inspected before anyone moves in. The homes are then inspected every 12 months.

McGriff, who is originally from New York, had lived in the home at 8423 N 16th St. since March 2010. It was valued at $20,000. He paid $95 in rent each month, and the Housing Authority paid the rest.

The little stucco home had two smoke detectors, records show — one inside a bedroom, one outside.

No one can say with certainty that if they had been working, they would have saved McGriff's life.

This is what authorities do know:

At about 6 a.m. on April 16, an unattended pot on the stove sparked a fire.

Smoke poured from the house, and a neighbor called 911. When firefighters arrived, they found McGriff unconscious and without a pulse.

Paramedics brought him back, but he continued to decline until doctors declared him dead the next day. According to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office, the soot- and smoke-filled air caused his death.

Three dogs died, too.

If anything in the house breaks down between inspections, the tenant is responsible for notifying the landlord or property manager, said Margaret Jones, the director of Assisted Housing and Section 8.

Anita McGriff said she and her son tried.

Messages a reporter left with KRRS Properties and 4M Property Management were unreturned. The Housing Authority does not know why the smoke detector repeatedly stopped working. But the agency is not surprised.

It is a common issue.

For whatever reason, Section 8 inspectors often find the batteries removed from smoke detectors, Jones said.

"It happens all the time," said Jones, who used to inspect Section 8 homes.

It was a pet peeve of hers — something she found especially irksome when children lived in the home.

"When it comes to a fire," she said, "it's your last line of defense."

Jones said it was especially common to find the batteries gone around Christmas time, when children would received battery-operated toys. Jones repeatedly lectured families about the importance of smoke detectors.

She can't say if that happened in McGriff's case, and he cannot answer that question himself.

Instead, it will be up to lawyers — maybe a judge or jury — to decide who, if anyone, was negligent.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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