NHC Passed on Life-Saving Smoke Detectors - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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NHC Passed on Life-Saving Smoke Detectors

(Story created: 11/15/04)

Last year's deadly fire inside the NHC nursing home has led to lawsuits, gag orders and secret settlements. Now, amid all the secrecy, attorneys are now demanding that Metro taxpayers help pay for what happened. But it all could have been avoided.

As fire erupted inside the NHC nursing home, images of helplessness and heroism became impossible to forget. 

At least 14 people died, leaving family members only with questions.

"Where were the nurses? Where were the sprinklers, the smoke detectors?" one victim's granddaughter asked.

NHC's chief executive officer struggled with the answers.

"I will ask for the rest of my life how could this tragic situation have been avoided," Andy Adams told reporters.

But our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered a story tragic not only in its ending, but also tragic because of the missed opportunities.

"There's just something in us which says, 'That happens on TV and it happens to other people, but not to me,'" says Metro councilman and former Metro fire chief Buck Dozier.

Dozier rushed to the nursing home the night of the fire.

Investigators concluded the fire started in Room 221. There, they found evidence of heavy smoke, but high ceilings delayed smoke from entering the corridor and triggering smoke detectors out in the hallway.

"Before somebody actually saw it, I'd say you were in a five to 10 minute range," Dozier speculates.

By the time, NHC staff discovered the fire, valuable time had been lost. At the time, Adams said the company would "evaluate" installing smoke detectors.

But our investigation discovered that when NHC installed a new fire alarm system back in 1994, the installer told them they could also have smoke detectors in every patient room for only $6,500.

"$6,500 extra, including sales tax, it says here," Dozier observes, looking at the bid documents submitted to NHC by D&H Supply of Mt. Juliet and obtained by NewsChannel 5.

It was money the company apparently decided not to spend.

"We wouldn't be sitting here now in my judgment if that would have been done," the former fire chief says.

"You would have had a detection system which would have warned the person in the room and staff about this fire long before.

"This would have been a very wise investment."

Then, there are questions about sprinkler systems.  Again, at the time, Adams said, "The issue of sprinklers really had never come up."

In fact, it had come up in 1996 and 1997 when NHC built the one-story addition from which firefighters mounted their rescue efforts.

"At that time, the facility could either have sprinkled the entire facility or chose to do a 4-hour rated wall," assistant health commissioner Judy Eads tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

Such a wall could hold back a fire for four hours between the old structure and the new.

"They chose to do the four-hour rated wall," she adds.

"Why would they not choose sprinklers?" Williams asks.

"It could be possibly the cost of going back and adding sprinkler systems to an existing building."

Yet, at the same time, NHC was making those decisions, corporate records show it was paying hefty bonuses to its top executives for keeping costs down.

Between 1994 and 1997, the corporation paid Adams $4.1 million in bonuses and loaned him another $4.1 million to buy stock, according to records filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

These days, his total stock in all of NHC's entities is valued at roughly $90 million dollars, according to estimates from CBS Marketwatch.

Which through the hindsight of that terrible night, Buck Dozer says, makes $6,500 seem like pocket change.

"I don't know their mindset at this point.  I think they made a mistake here," he adds. "For the amount of money -- $6,500 -- it would have been a very small price to pay for what they are paying out now."

But NHC did have the money to pay for liability insurance and business interruption insurance.

After the fire, they announced they'd retrofit all their facilities with sprinkler systems. Under legislation passed by Tennessee lawmakers, the cost for that will be picked up by taxpayers.

Because of a gag order in the case, neither NHC nor any of the other parties would comment.

So we went to NHC employees, contractors and others, looking for answers.  Still, one person just told us NHC's lawyers don't want her talking about what really happened.

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