Widow: Smoke Detector Failed Husband - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NC5 Investigates: An Alarming Failure

Widow: Smoke Detector Failed Husband

Harriette Wilson, with photo of husband John Harriette Wilson, with photo of husband John
This is how the Wilsons' smoke detector looked after the fire This is how the Wilsons' smoke detector looked after the fire
Vince Gill spoke and sang at John Wilson's funeral Vince Gill spoke and sang at John Wilson's funeral

You may not realize it, but simply having a smoke detector may not be enough to ensure your family survives a fire.

That's a lesson one Middle Tennessee woman learned the hard way.

Harriette Wilson's husband John Wilson, a longtime television news photographer, died in a house fire after their smoke detector failed to go off.

NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Jennifer Kraus first uncovered this potentially deadly problem last fall.

Wilson hopes her story will save lives.

"That was the man I fell in love with years ago," Harriette Wilson tells Kraus, calling John her best friend and soul mate.

"He was my life," she says. "You could be having the worst day of your life and that man could put a smile on your face."

He also touched other people.

"We all loved John Wilson," former weather personality Bill Hall said during the funeral. "We all respected John Wilson."

"I just wanted to be here to honor John," said country entertainer Vince Gill.

John Wilson died Thanksgiving night in a fire at his home in Watertown.

But his wife believes he'd still be alive today if they'd had the right kind of smoke detector.

"I had no idea that there were different kinds," she says.

Holding a piece of the detector in her hand, she says, "It's a jumbled piece of plastic that was supposed to save a life and it didn't."

She says the night of the fire thick black smoke made its way from their basement. It went right past their smoke detector and all the way up to the third floor.

"This is where John was," she says, pointing to where he slept.

"It's the awfulest thing that you can imagine in your life," she adds. "You can't see. You can't breathe."

By the time the smoke detector went off, it was too late, she says.

The problem, she now believes, is that they had an ionization smoke detector.

It's the kind of detector most people have in their homes.

Yet, study after study has shown that ionization detectors have trouble detecting smoke.

In tests conducted for NewsChannel 5, the smoke got so thick it was nearly impossible to breathe without firefighting gear.

Yet, it took the ionization detector more than 15 minutes to sound a warning.

A different kind of smoke detector, known as a photoelectric detector, sensed the smoke more than seven minutes earlier, which is early enough for most people to get out safely.

"The commercials you see say these will save your life," Wilson says, fighting back tears. "They detect the smoke before the fire. It didn't."

A NewsChannel 5 investigation found customers have been complaining to smoke detector manufacturers about ionization detectors for nearly 20 years.

Documents uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates show the federal government knew in 1995 that ionization detectors often failed to detect smoke.

It is a problem fire experts believe has killed thousands of people.

"If they know that these things don't work, how can they put them on the shelf and sell them everyday?" Wilson asks.

So she is now trying to spread the word about ionization detectors, hoping to warn others and save lives.

"I wonder how many of these are in other people's home and this is what they'll have," she says.

To find out what kind of detector you have, click here.

Harriette and John Wilson did not have insurance so a fund has been set up to help her rebuild. 

If you'd like to make a donation, you can contact the Murfreesboro branch of SunTrust bank at 849-7000.

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