N.O. crime commission spurs inquiry
The Louisiana Office of Inspector General is looking into the circumstances of a deadly Grand Isle apartment complex fire investigated by the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
Greg Phares, chief investigator of the Office of Inspector General, said he cannot comment further other than to acknowledge that the information came from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a New Orleans watchdog organization that focuses on public corruption.
This is the second time this year that the Office of Inspector General has received information from the commission about the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
The commission forwarded a series of complaints about State Fire Marshal Butch Browning to Inspector General Stephen Street in March, including an allegation that Browning suppressed information about his office’s handling of an investigation of a carnival ride accident that left two teens injured.
Browning announced his retirement April 17, a day before Street confirmed that his office was looking into complaints about the fire marshal misusing his authority.
Browning resumed his position less than a month later after a State Police investigation determined he did not attempt to defraud the office or the public.
Phares said he hopes to have a report completed within a week about his office’s investigation into the first set of complaints.
Rafael Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he forwarded the Grand Isle fire information to the Inspector General’s Office after determining the Fire Marshal’s Office failed to properly respond to a complaint it received about Willow Creek Apartments six months before two people died in a fire at the complex.
The complaint, obtained by The Advocate through a public records request, was written March 20 by Milton Bourgeois, who owns rental property next to Willow Creek.
In his letter, Bourgeois calls the apartment complex “an extreme severe fire hazard” and asks the Fire Marshal’s Office to inspect the property at 2727 La. 1.
“I cannot overly stress the deplorable condition of this very run-down former motel that has doors missing, windows missing and also has air conditioning units missing, leaving large gaping holes,” Bourgeois wrote. “To the best of my knowledge, there are no fire extinguishers located in each and every room of the building as the law requires. …”
In response to Bourgeois’ complaint, Nunzio Marchiafava, the New Orleans district supervisor for the Fire Marshal’s Office, made two trips to the complex between April 2 and May 25, according to Fire Marshal’s Office emails and daily activity reports.
He said in an email to his supervisors that the property “appeared to be vacant at first, due to a lack of activity, no manger or representative present.”
The complex’s office “was closed and contained storage,” but an air conditioner was running in at least two of the complex’s units, he said.
Marchiafava said he knocked on the doors of both units and a man inside one of the units cracked the door and told Marchiafava that the apartment had a smoke detector. The man would not let Marchiafava into the apartment.
Marchiafava said he talked to Grand Isle Fire Chief Aubrey Chaisson about the complaint and suggested Chaisson organize an inspection between the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Grand Isle Fire Department and Jefferson Parish Code Enforcement. According to subsequent emails, that inspection was never scheduled and efforts to contact Bourgeois and the complex owner, Steve Caruso, were never made.
As a result, Goyeneche said, Belle Brandl, 60, and Timothy Foret, 46, died in a fire Sept. 26 at Willow Creek Apartments. He said the failure of the Fire Marshal’s Office to “execute something as simple as an inspection” resulted in two people losing their lives and is “indicative of managerial problems in the office that are putting the public in harm’s way.”
Goyeneche said the office’s policy and procedure manual clearly states how to investigate a citizen’s complaint. The manual says the inspector “shall take detailed notes during the course of the inspection” and then write an inspection report.
“Where is the complete report and thorough investigation,” Goyeneche asked of Marchiafava’s trip to Grand Isle. “There isn’t one.”
Browning stands by his office’s investigation into Bourgeois’ complaint and said there is nothing his people could have done to prevent the fire at Willow Creek Apartments.
“There is no correlation between the complaint, what we did and the fire that killed two people,” Browning said. “Unfortunately, they were living in a place that had one way in and one way out.”
According to a news release about the fire marshal’s investigation into the fire, Brandl and Foret died after being trapped inside their burning apartments. By the time the residents discovered their building was ablaze, their only way out — a second-story wooden balcony — was in flames.
Evidence at the scene showed both victims discharged handheld fire extinguishers and all of the occupied units at the complex were equipped with smoke detectors, the release says.
The detectors, however, offered little help to the victims because the fire started on the outside of the building near Brandl’s doorway and spread to a number of combustibles — including bicycles, plastic tarps, a barbecue pit and plastic containers filled with video game cases — stored below the second-story balcony, the release says.
State Fire Marshal’s Office and local fire investigators were unable to identify the source of the fire but believe “human intervention” played a role after ruling out natural causes and faulty electrical wiring, the release says.
Browning said nothing could have been done prior to the fire about the materials stored underneath the balcony.
“If trash and garbage had been accumulated, it could have been looked at as a housekeeping hazard,” he said. “But that wasn’t what was under the balcony.”
Browning also said that nothing could have been done about the structure of the building that was built before the state’s 1967 building code, which is much more stringent than what was previously in place.
“If we went to every building in the state and inspected them according to today’s code, we would shut several down,” Browning said.
When asked why Marchiafava didn’t contact Bourgeois and complex owner Caruso, or try harder to get inside the complex when investigating Bourgeois’ complaint, Browning said doing so wasn’t necessary.
“There were no fire safety concerns on both visits the inspector made,” Browning said.
For Marchiafava to go inside the complex he “would have had to get permission from each person,” Browning said. “We would have had to go to court and get a court order to go inside, and at the time, the inspector didn’t think that was warranted.”
Browning said he trusts Marchiafava, who has 25 years of experience in fire investigation.
“I have no doubt in his expertise,” Browning said. “He is well-seasoned in his job.”
But Bourgeois said the Fire Marshal’s Office should have handled the situation differently.
“They should have shut that place down,” he said.