Fire safety under review at DeChantal

SARANAC LAKE – Workers hired by the DeChantal Apartments’ management were busy Wednesday making modifications to the high-rise’s fire doors in the wake of a Sunday blaze there that killed a 91-year-old woman.

Wayne Feinberg, who runs the 11-story, 130-unit building with his father, said fire safety precautions and evacuation procedures are being reviewed in coordination with the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department.

“We’ve had a number of conversations with (Fire Chief) Brendan (Keough),” Feinberg said. “They’re having their meetings to evaluate what worked, what they’d like to see done differently or worked better, and so are we.

“It appears things worked very well, all things considered. We’ve never had a high-rise fire situation. We’ve had some stuff smoking on a stove or something, but that’s all it’s been in 39 years.”

Sunday’s blaze, which claimed the life of Rose Schoonmaker, took place inside her fifth-floor apartment and led to the evacuation of all 110 of the building’s residents. Jean McDonough, who lived on the same floor as Schoonmaker and tried unsuccessfully to rescue her, told the Enterprise Wednesday that the fire doors in the hallway didn’t close during the blaze.

“If there was a fire, the doors were automatically supposed to shut, but they didn’t work,” she said.

Feinberg said that’s because heat sensors trigger the doors to close, and the heat from Sunday’s fire apparently didn’t spread beyond Schoonmaker’s apartment.

“There was no heat anywhere near them for them to close, but there was a little bit of smoke going down the hall,” Feinberg said. “They actually are starting to install today different automatic closures tied to the alarm system so that when the alarm goes off, they’ll automatically close on every floor.”

Until the changeover is complete, Feinberg said the village’s code enforcement officer, Jeremy Evans, has asked for the fire doors to remain closed on each floor. Feinberg noted that having the doors closed all the time is a little problematic as they’re difficult for some of the building’s elderly tenants to push open or get a wheelchair through.

Among other measures under review, Feinberg said he’s talked with Keough about how they can more easily get access to all the building’s apartments in the event of another emergency.

“In all the big buildings in town, they have a lock box outside so that when the fire truck or ambulance shows up, they don’t need us to let them in,” Feinberg said. “They go to the lock box, and it has a passkey for the building so they can go to anyone’s apartment. There are a couple passkeys in our lock box. Normally that’s all that’s needed, but we’re giving them more passkeys.”

Feinberg said the fire department has also asked for a list of residents in each apartment “so they can check off who’s been evacuated.

“We’re probably going to designate in the office a folder on the wall that they can grab and will have our current rent roll and who has special needs like oxygen and other things,” he said. “We’ve given that to them before, but when the alarm goes off at the fire department, nobody’s grabbing the folder.”

Residents are normally told to stay in their apartments in the event of a fire in the building, based on prior fire department protocol, Feinberg said.

“It’s a fire-resistant building,” he said. “They want you to put a towel under the door to keep the smoke from coming in. That’s the safest spot you can be until they can come and get you. They don’t want people running through the building, unless obviously you’re in the unit that has the issue.”

DeChantal has a sprinkler system, but Feinberg said it’s limited to the boiler room and common areas on the first floor. However, each floor has fire extinguishers and standpipes with hoses at either end of the hallway. A resident used one of the building’s extinguishers to put out most of the fire in Schoonmaker’s apartment Sunday morning, and firefighters finished it off with water drawn from the standpipe closest to her unit, Feinberg said.

Feinberg said life at DeChantal was largely back to normal Sunday night. However, apartment 5A, where the fire took place, is still locked and under control of village police.

“We’ve used our maintenance staff and cleaned up in the hall, washed down the hall walls around the apartment, but nobody’s done anything inside the apartment,” Feinberg said.

Insurance adjustors are scheduled to visit the site soon, but they first have to conduct an asbestos inspection inside the apartment, Feinberg said. A meeting with the building’s tenants was scheduled to take place Wednesday “to discuss some of the things that happened.

“In any small town or small neighborhood like that, there’s always rumors of, ‘It started this way,’ or, ‘It started that way,'” Feinberg said. “The fire department isn’t in a position to say what has happened yet, because it’s not official yet, but they said there are a few things they can definitely rule out that will make people feel better.”

Investigators have determined that Schoonmaker’s motorized scooter was involved in the fire, but they said neither it nor her oxygen supply system caused the blaze. Feinberg said he was in the apartment when the scooter was removed.

“It appears the chair was the primary thing that burnt,” he said. “They seemed to be saying the chair was functioning properly. They had ruled out that it was its battery or charger, even though it was heavily charred.”

Keough said the fire department plans to conduct its own critique of the incident next week.

“We’ll pull the police department and rescue squad and our people together to talk about how we can do it better,” he said. “Wayne and his dad and I have already come up with a number of good things to improve upon our response.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or