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No sprinklers: Could this condo fire death have been avoided?

ST. PETERSBURG — Shortly after 4:30 on the morning of Sept. 7, Kelly Winston drove away from her condo in Waterside at Coquina Key and headed to work.

She hadn't gotten very far, just a few hundred feet, when a man ran up to her Camaro and began beating on the door and window. He had was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and had a crazed look.

Startled and scared, Winston kept going. It was only when she stopped for gas that she saw blood on the door.

Minutes before, Daniel Herrmann had bolted through a bedroom window to escape dense black smoke and flames shooting in from a balcony. With burned hands, he had pounded on neighbors' doors, then on Winston's car, trying to get help for his roommate, still trapped inside their condo.

Firefighters found 25-year-old Zachary Means dead in the kitchen. The fire had been so intense, it melted the plastic on appliances and peeled the laminate off the cabinets.

Nearly two months later, investigators have not determined the cause of the blaze that killed Means, an Eckerd College graduate whom his professors call one of the most brilliant students they ever had. Whatever the eventual finding, a former Waterside condo owner thinks Means' death could have been prevented.

"Sprinklers could have saved that boy's life," says David Lilling, a filmmaker.

There are no sprinklers at Waterside at Coquina Key, one Tampa Bay's largest condo communities, because it was not required to have them.

RELATED COVERAGE: Grand jury calls Florida agency inept and ill-suited to probe condo complaints

******

Sprinklers undeniably save lives.

Between 2000 and the first of this year, 10 people died and 82 were injured in fires in high-rise Florida condominiums that lacked sprinklers. In buildings with sprinkler systems, 43 people were injured in fires and no one died.

Nonetheless, more than 60 Tampa Bay condo associations have "opted out" of retrofitting their buildings with sprinklers, state records show. Among them are three high-rises on Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard — Bayshore Diplomat, Commodores Cove and the Bayshore Royal.

Whether to equip all Florida condominiums with sprinklers "has been a political struggle and battle for 17 years," said Jon Pasqualone, executive director of the Florida Fire Marshals and Inspectors Association.

In 2000, the state adopted a national fire protection code prompted by a pair of horrific fires in the 1980s — a blaze at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that killed 85 and an arson in Puerto Rico's DuPont Plaza hotel in which at least 96 died. Originally, Florida condo associations had until 2012 to choose one of two options — install sprinklers in all units or put sprinklers in exit hallways.

But opposition was fierce.

Fire officials had figures showing that retrofitting a typical condo unit with sprinklers would be less than $2,000. But "opponents were telling the Legislature it's going to cost up to $20,000 a unit, which is absurd," Pasqualone said.

Much of the objection came from elderly people living on fixed incomes in Fort Lauderdale, where the Galt Mile is lined with condos built in the 1970s. Those are the kind of buildings especially in need of sprinklers, Pasqualone said.

"There's a series of condos down there that are deteriorating, just as the mobility of these people is deteriorating, which is our concern," he said. "Smoke alarms are great but my 94-year-old mother, if she gets on her walker, her face is up in the smoke and she's not going to get out. Sprinklers stop the fire from growing and spreading."

Governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist both vetoed bills that would have pushed back the deadline for retrofitting to 2025. "I am sensitive to the costs associated with installing the fire sprinkler systems," Crist wrote in his 2010 veto message. "However, in the event of a fire, public safety for residents and for the firefighters and emergency medical personnel who lay their lives on the line… greatly outweighs all other considerations."

Lawmakers finally settled on a 2020 deadline for retrofitting condominiums more than 75 feet tall, higher than most ladder trucks can reach. But by last Dec. 31, condo associations with buildings not already in compliance had to show local fire officials whether they planned to install sprinklers or else "opt out."

Among the condominiums that voted to retrofit — belatedly — was Dolphin Cove, a waterfront high-rise in Clearwater.

In 2002, a Dolphin Cove fire that started in a kitchen on the fifth floor quickly spread, killing two elderly residents and badly injuring three firefighters. Though a subsequent report blasted the Clearwater fire department for failing to follow basic fire-fighting techniques, the lack of sprinklers at the time was deemed a major factor in the casualties.

The buildings in Waterside at Coquina Key are only two stories, so they are not required to have sprinklers. But the association for the 600 condos in the south part of Waterside — where Zack Means died — held a vote last fall.

"There were these lawyers pumping out alarms to condo associations saying you've got to vote on sprinklers if you want to have flexibility under state law to install them or not," said Dan Lobeck, an attorney who currently represents the Waterside South condo association. "The key is, Waterside didn't need to take a vote because it was already exempt."

Nonetheless, a majority of owners voted no to sprinklers. That didn't surprise Lilling the former resident.

"It's an investor place, where people just collect a check," he said. "They don't want to spend money if they don't have to."

***

Built in 1979 as the Coquina Key Arms apartments, the gated community on Tampa Bay a few miles south of downtown St. Petersburg was converted to condos during the boom years of the mid-2000s. With a new name, new paint and attractive landscaping, the units at Waterside have sold well, especially to investors.

Among the many renters were Zach Means and Daniel Herrmann, both biology majors and graduates of Eckerd College.

Means grew up in St. Petersburg and went through the challenging CAT program -- Center for Advanced Technologies --- at Lakewood High School. In 2010, he enrolled at Eckerd, where he quickly stood out.

"He was one of the nicest human beings I ever met,'' said Denise Flaherty, an assistant professor of biology. "He was someone who had a strong moral compass and that strikes you in a young person. He was just a really nice, good kid, the kind of kid who would do anything for you, and he did his work and he was really smart."

Means was recruited for Eckerd's Marine Science Freshman Research Program, in which first-year students conduct research with faculty members. He worked with William Szelistowski, an associate professor of biology, on projects involving fish DNA and presented the preliminary results at a meeting in Tampa of the American Fisheries Society.

"I received really nice feedback from my colleagues at the meeting regarding how surprising it was that a freshman student had this level of sophistication," Szelistowski later wrote in a letter of recommendation for Means. "I would say that Zach was probably one of the best students I've ever worked with."

During his freshman year, Means was also invited to be a teaching assistant for a botany course, an unusual step for someone so early in his college career. As a sophomore, he was one of just 20 Eckerd Ford Scholars.

Throughout his undergraduate years, Means compiled an impressive record of research. He studied the environmental effects of hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He worked on the molecular biology of Huntington's Disease while a research intern at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a recipient of a Hollings scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he went to Woods Hole, Mass., and measured the growth rate of commercially important fish.

"A superstar," is what Szelistowski called Means in recommending him for a Ph.D program in molecular medicine at the University of South Florida

***

On the night of Sept. 6, thousands of Tampa Bay residents were fixated on Hurricane Irma, sweeping store shelves clean of bottled water and making plans to flee.

But the weather was still nice so Means, Herrmann and a friend, Nathan Gazlon, hung out on the balcony of the second-floor condo, listening to music and enjoying the full moon over the water.

Gazlon would later tell a detective that the other two "were pretty intoxicated'' and continually smoked cigarettes. All three smoked marijuana, he said, according to a police report.

Herrmann, though, told police that he and Means smoked only cigarettes -- being careful to put them out in an ashtray -- and had a just a few beers over three or four hours. They were not intoxicated and "did not go crazy,'' he said, because they had to work the next morning --- Means at a BayCare laboratory, Herrmann as a medical scribe.

As related in the police report, Herrmann went to bed around 1:30. Three hours later, he awoke to the sound of a firm alarm. He stepped out of his bedroom to see flames licking in through the back door and a curtain of thick, black smoke hanging several feet from the ceiling. He crawled towards Means' bedroom and found his roommate standing by the bedroom door.

Both made their way toward the front door. Herrmann grabbed the knob. It was so hot it burned his hand. He started to crawl back to his room and told Means to follow him. A couch near the kitchen was in flames.

As Herrmann "army crawled'' to his room, inching along by his elbows, belly pressed flat to the floor, he heard Means screaming. Then he heard a thud.

There were no more screams.

Herrmann got to his window, opened it and climbed onto an attached veranda. From there he jumped to the ground and sprinted off, pounding on doors and yelling at Winston in her Camaro to get help.

Firefighters arrived at 4:35 a.m., six minutes after a neighbor called 911. They broke through the locked front door and launched a "fast attack" through the thick smoke to put out the fire. They found Means face down on the kitchen floor, a small pool of blood near his head. It apparently had come from a gash over his eye.

In his report, St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue investigator Ed Fishback said the fire seemed to have started on the balcony, then spread to the roof and into the attic. It burned through the wooden French doors and vented into the living room.

Fishback found a fan on the balcony near the suspected origin of the fire, but it did not appear to have been the cause. There were also two empty red gas cans on the balcony — Herrmann would later say they had been empty before the fire — and what appeared to be an empty citronella candle. Herrmann told police that they had been unable to light it to ward off mosquitoes because it didn't have a wick.

"Because the first fuel and the source of ignition could not be identified, the fire is classified as undetermined at this time," Fishback wrote in September.

The 25-year-old Herrmann was taken to Tampa General Hospital with burns on his hands and feet. He has since been released, and did not respond to calls from a reporter.

The Pinellas County Medical Examiner has not yet listed a cause of death for Means. But smoke likely played a role.

"We believe that in the smoke he became disoriented and passed out at some point and was not able to self-evacuate," said Lt. Steven Lawrence, St. Petersburg's deputy fire marshal.

Would a sprinkler system have saved him?

It probably would have kept the fire from spreading inside, Lawrence said, and '"provided a safer environment in which to escape."

***

Having exempted Waterside and other older condominiums under 75 feet from fire-protection requirements, Florida lawmakers tried again this year to weaken protection for highrise condos. They passed a bill that extended to 2022 the deadline for installing sprinklers or "engineered life safety systems'' such as smoke-tight doors. The bill also gave condo associations the right to reject both options on a two-thirds vote.

Gov. Rick Scott, citing London's disastrous Grenfell Tower fire that killed dozens, vetoed the bill.

Lawmakers are expected to try again next year.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

About the story:

This story was based on the St. Petersburg Police Department's incident/investigation report of the Sept. 7 fire at Waterside at Coquina Key and St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue's origin and cause report. The Tampa Bay Times attempted to contact Daniel Herrmann but his phone number no longer works. Zachary Means' family did not respond to calls or a letter. Nathan Gazlon, who was with Zach and Daniel the night before the fire, did not respond to calls.

No sprinklers: Could this condo fire death have been avoided? 10/26/17 [Last modified: Monday, October 30, 2017 7:43am]
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