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After deadly blaze, officials turn sights on old nemesis: burglar bars

 
Burglar bars remain on the windows at 3720 E. Paris St. in Tampa, the scene of a fatal fire that killed a Tampa grand mother and her 3 grandchildren. It is believed that the burglar bars impeded escape and rescue.  (Saturday, October 3, 2015.) [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Burglar bars remain on the windows at 3720 E. Paris St. in Tampa, the scene of a fatal fire that killed a Tampa grand mother and her 3 grandchildren. It is believed that the burglar bars impeded escape and rescue. (Saturday, October 3, 2015.) [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published Oct. 5, 2015

TAMPA

Flames consumed the small, wood-frame home before dawn. Iron burglar bars bolted across every window and door — meant to protect a grandmother and her three young grandchildren — instead trapped them as the house filled with smoke and burned around them. All four died in that Aug. 31 blaze.

"I could only imagine how terrifying it could've been, to feel trapped and not able to get out," said Tampa Fire Marshal Milton Jenkins. "This could have been prevented if they (had) the proper safety devices."

The home at 3720 E Paris St. had no smoke detector. But what fire safety officials across the bay area have focused on in the weeks since that deadly blaze is an old nemesis: burglar bars.

Too many homes across the bay area and state are outfitted with the ancient anti-burglary devices, particularly in older, low-income neighborhoods.

Modern burglar bars have quick-release mechanisms so residents can flee in an emergency. But old-fashioned bars don't permit easy escape. The bars at 3720 E Paris St. went up three decades ago, family said — but now violate the Florida Building Code.

It's an old, dangerous problem that fire safety officials still don't have a solution for. There's little officials can do to compel residents to remove or replace the bars.

Code enforcement and fire rescue officials across Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties all say opportunities to intervene are limited.

"There's not a whole lot we can do," said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny. "We can't go into somebody's home and write them up for something. We can't just knock on your door and fine you if you're not doing something the right way."

Pasco Fire Marshal Donald Campbell echoed similar concerns, citing the inability to address the issue directly.

"Our hands are kind of tied here in Pasco," Campbell said. "It's a tragedy that happens all too often."

As far as fire safety and prevention, he added, burglar bars are a topic that sometimes takes the back seat.

"Burglar bars and windows are just as important as smoke detectors, not smoking in bed and all that general fire safety," Campbell said. "I think we all have a responsibility."

Fire rescue officials also don't have authority to inspect single-family homes.

Campbell and officials across the state want to be able to do more, because issuing violations and educating homeowners, officials said, can only do so much.

"You can lead a horse to water," Campbell said, "but you can't make 'em drink."

So often, the only chances to educate people about the dangers of burglar bars is in the aftermath of disaster.

"From a life safety perspective … it poses problem for fire marshals' offices throughout the state," Jenkins said.

And when officials do talk to residents about the dangers of old burglar bars, they say those residents resist the idea. The bars, after all, are protecting their homes from another menace: burglars.

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Tampa neighborhood enhancement division director Sal Ruggiero identified another concern: Many cannot afford to fix the problem.

"A lot couldn't afford the cost to remove them or change them," he said.

The cost to retrofit burglar bars with a proper quick-release apparatus starts around $200 per window at area welding and steel supply shops like Best Made Enterprises Inc.

Workers at the company are not called out to retrofit as much as needed, said Pablo Flores, who runs Best Made Enterprises.

At one point, he said, the group was performing three to four burglar bar jobs a week. But since the recession, that number is more like a half-dozen each month, Flores said.

The fatal fire on East Paris Street killed Sheryl James, 61, and grandsons Reshard Ashley, 8; Romello Jackson, 8; and Emjay Jackson, 3. Days later, Tampa Fire Rescue and the Red Cross were knocking on doors, offering to install smoke detectors.

But there was nothing officials could do about the burglar bars that dotted the neighborhood. So resident Mattie Coleman, 80, decided to have her bars removed.

Coleman has lived on Clifton Street, three blocks from the fire, for half a century. When the fire inspector came, she was sitting on the couch with her 12-month-old granddaughter, Aleigh, on her lap. The inspector installed the home's first-ever smoke detector.

But fire officials also spotted her old burglar bars bolted to the window frames. You don't have to remove them, they told Coleman, but they should be updated.

But after the fire, the 80-year-old said she had already made up her mind. The bars would come down. She thought of the death of her friend, James.

"Maybe someone could have gotten out," Coleman said.

Ronnie Coleman, 51, lives with his mother in the house where he was raised. It was his late father who made the makeshift burglar bars from iron fence scraps and bolted them to the inside of bedroom windows inside the home.

"It was tragic what happened to them around the corner," Ronnie Coleman said, inhaling a lit cigarette. "It wasn't a big concern of ours until that house got burned."

He used to smoke in the house, but not anymore. Not since the fire.

That day, he and his mother devised a plan to strip the bolted bars from the window frames.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Anne Steele contributed to this report. Contact Michael Majchrowicz at (813) 226-3374 or mmajchrowicz@tampabay.com. Follow @mjmajchrowicz.