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Burglar bars are used for safety, but are deadly in a fire

The old-fashioned burglar bars at 2905 E Chipco St. in Tampa kept three people trapped in a fire.

John Pendygraft | Times

The old-fashioned burglar bars at 2905 E Chipco St. in Tampa kept three people trapped in a fire.

TAMPA — Eight or nine months ago, a Tampa welder talked to a man on Chipco Street about installing a quick release on his burglar bars.

"He said he wasn't ready," recalled Melton Davis, owner of Reliable Welding & Steel Supply.

On Monday, the man's house went up in flames. The iron bars trapped three people inside as good Samaritans tried in vain to free them.

For the cost of a $200 per window upgrade, the family of three might have been saved.

Instead, two died.

A third, 73-year-old Mary Jones-Bynes, clings to life at St. Joseph's Hospital.

"That makes it even more of a tragedy," Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said after being told of Davis' account. "It is safe to assume the outcome would have been different had there been a quick release on the burglar bars at the Chipco Street residence."

In almost 15 years of making and installing burglar bars in the Tampa area, Davis, 43, said he's found homeowners are reluctant to upgrade from the old unmovable bars to the safer escape bars required by fire code.

"Generally, it's the money," Davis said.

One window can cost $200 to upgrade with a quick release accessible from inside the house.

When people do make the changes, Davis said, it's because they're forced to — either because they're refinancing the house or because insurance requires it.

State fire codes and local building codes require that every sleeping room be equipped with an outside escape that can be opened from the inside without the help of a key or tool.

But enforcing that rule is tough, said Harold Scott, a city of Tampa code enforcement officer, especially if a property is in good condition and regulators have no other reason to inspect.

On Friday, at 2905 Chipco St., family members spent part of the day salvaging the charred pictures and singed furniture from the two-bedroom home that long served as a family hub.

Two hibiscus plants flanked a tidy yard that has long been lovingly tended by Jones-Bynes, a retired teacher, and her husband, Willie Bynes, 68, a retired school district employee.

Latoya Jones-Williams, the 26-year-old granddaughter who lived with them, was a source of laughter for the family.

She was graduate of Gary Adult Center who recently obtained her medical technician certification, family friend Benettye Griffin-Davis recalled as she sat outside the home Friday.

Griffin-Davis said she grew up in the East Tampa neighborhood, thinking little of the burglar bars. They offered affordable crime protection for people who can't afford a pricier electronic burglar alarm system.

Now, she can't help but see bars everywhere.

"Look around," she said, pointing at each of the houses surrounding the Jones-Bynes residence. "This is our neighborhood. Everybody has bars."

Sharon Gamache, director of high-risk outreach programs for the National Fire Protection Association, said each year there are about 20 fire-related deaths nationwide that involve the bars.

"I think people often perceive their risk to crime is greater than their risk to fire," Gamache said.

But statistics show that most fatal fires happen in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods where burglar bars are more common, she said.

In East Tampa alone, four people have died since 2003 after being trapped in fires.

Just a six-minute drive south from Chipco Street is the site of a tragic 1997 fire where four children died when their grandmother's Ybor City home caught fire and the bars blocked their rescue.

Katie Baldwin's eyes still fill with tears at the memory. Three of the children were her own.

"We didn't even think about it until it happened," she said. Now, few in the family feel comfortable even walking into homes where iron bars block windows and doors, she said.

Gamache said the most effective means of getting people to understand the dangers of the old-fashioned bars is through a combination of law, education and community outreach.

Scott, the local code enforcement officer, said aid is sometimes available to help qualified homeowners retrofit burglar bars.

And Tampa firefighters have a standing offer to help residents install and maintain their smoke detectors in cases where they can't do it themselves.

On Monday, Tampa Fire Rescue will be conducting a sweep of the neighborhood immediately surrounding the Chipco Street house in an effort to do just that. (The Chipco house also did not have a working smoke detector.)

Meanwhile, a grieving family will prepare for a funeral Tuesday at St. Paul AME Church in downtown Tampa.

Griffin-Davis urged other families to ensure their homes are safe in every way imaginable.

When told that a welder recalled talking to a man at the Chipco house about upgrading his burglar bars a few months before the fire, Griffin-Davis grew quiet.

"Oh, my God," she whispered.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Burglar bars are used for safety, but are deadly in a fire 12/12/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:19pm]

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