Detectors Leave Victims 'Trapped by Smoke' - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NC5 Investigates: An Alarming Failure

Detectors Leave Victims 'Trapped by Smoke'

Four Debuty children died from smoke inhalation Four Debuty children died from smoke inhalation
Amanda Debuty: Detectors 'never went off' Amanda Debuty: Detectors 'never went off'
Boston deputy fire chief Jay Fleming: 'It's a tragedy and a disgrace' Boston deputy fire chief Jay Fleming: 'It's a tragedy and a disgrace'

Every year, Tennessee ranks among the worst states for fire deaths. That's why you often hear you need a smoke detectors to protect your family.

But a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that not all detectors are equal. In fact, the most common type has an alarming rate of failure.

Our consumer investigator Jennifer Kraus found one family who wishes they'd known the difference.

Laughing, singing and just being kids is the way Amanda Debuty wants to remember her children - the way they lived, not the way they died.

"You're not supposed to bury your children," Debuty said. "Your children are supposed to bury you, and I buried four.

Debuty remembered waking up that night last February and being surrounded by thick black smoke.

Debuty recalled, "It just literally burnt your lungs as you sucked it in."

She made several frantic calls to 911 as the flames raced through her house.

Debuty said she tried to get upstairs where four of her five kids had been sleeping, but she couldn't get through the flames. She'll never forget the feeling.

"Absolute panic. Absolute panic," she described as she begins to cry.

Debuty, her husband and their three year old son managed to make it out.

Her four other children did not. Mandy, J.T., Sinjin and Shelbea all died in the fire, but autopsies later showed it wasn't the actual flames that killed them. Instead all four died from smoke inhalation, long before the flames began to spread.

Kraus asked Debuty, "At what point did you hear your smoke detector?"

Debuty insisted, "Never. They never went off."

And Debuty now believes she knows why her family never heard any sort of warning, even though there were three smoke alarms in the house.

Debuty said, "We just had your average generic smoke detector that you can buy at any basic store."

In fact, they're the same kind of smoke detector that most people have in their homes. They're called ionization smoke detectors and what they do best is sound off when there are actual flames.

The problem is studies have found ionization detectors can have trouble detecting, believe it or not, smoke.

Jay Fleming is a deputy chief with the Boston Fire Department and he said, "These cases keep me up at night. And there's tons of them."

Fleming became an outspoken critic of ionization detectors because he said they often fail to work in smokey smoldering fires.

"The smoldering fires," he said, "they always occur while people are asleep," and that, he adds, is when you need your smoke alarm the most.

Fleming described it this way, "When the detector finally does go off, the ion detector, they wake up, they're trapped by the smoke, and eventually, they die from carbon monoxide."

Amanda Debuty recalled that night tearfully, "My family was gone."

Kraus: "No alarm?"
Debuty: "No."
Kraus: "Letting you know and your family know to get out?"
Debuty: "No."

In fact, our investigation found that consumers have filed literally hundreds of complaints about ionization detectors, how in smoke-filled homes, their detectors never went off.

Recently, a family who lost two relatives in a house fire in upstate New York won a $7 million verdict against a smoke detector manufacturer.

And in Crossville, two children died in a house fire in the middle of the night after their detector didn't sound an alert. In that case, the manufacturer settled a lawsuit instead of going to trial.

Chief Fleming said, "I am convinced that scenario is repeated over and over again in this country."

In fact, Fleming believes thousands of people have died, like the Debuty children, in fires where their ionization detectors have failed to go off.

Fleming charges, "It's a tragedy and a disgrace."

But what's even more tragic, he said, is that a different kind of smoke alarm, called a photoelectric detector, actually might have saved many of these lives.

"The photoelectric isn't going to save everybody. But, I think the potential savings is huge," Fleming said.

Tests show photoelectric detectors usually go off in smoke-filled rooms much sooner than ionization detectors. Yet, photoelectric detectors generally only cost a few bucks more.

"Even at this extra cost, I think if most people knew the difference, they would gladly pay the price," Fleming said.

"I would have spent the money," Debuty said.

And Debuty added that because she didn't know there was a difference in smoke detectors, she's now lost something you can't put a price on.

She said tearfully, "I will never get another hug. I will never get another paper from school. There will never be another Christmas where I have five faces truly excited to see what's under the tree."

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