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A Terrible Story That Offers Lessons in Fire Safety

In addition to the tragic shopping-mall and nightclub fires I detailed in my last blog entry on April 11, this next story should be a lesson to anyone about thinking of fire safety wherever you are. When at home, you simply must check all possible means of escape on a regular basis to make sure they are free of obstructions and can be opened, in case a fire ever happens.

This story appeared in the Des Moines Register newspaper on April 2:

Sieh and Annie Toffoi were getting ready for bed when the floor in their second-story apartment began burning their feet. No smoke alarms went off in the apartment to alert the couple a fire was raging below, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in early April in Polk County, Iowa, District Court.

Sieh tried to escape down a stairway inside the house, but smoke and flames blocked the exit. He tried the windows, but said he could not pry them open.

“The floor was melting,” Sieh, 67 years old, said through an interpreter. Sieh and Annie, who were married in Liberia in 1980, were now trapped. And somewhere amid the smoke was their granddaughter Czu, 10.

The lawsuit filed against the landlord, Terry May of Des Moines, claims the windows were either designed not to open, or were nailed or painted shut.

Sieh crawled into his bedroom, the floor searing his hands and knees, before passing out on his mattress. His wife lost consciousness in the living room.

When fire crews arrived at the house on April 4, 2009, flames were shooting from the front window, and heavy black smoke billowed from the second story. They somehow managed to pull the couple to safety. But Czu, an elementary school student, died 24 hours later of smoke inhalation.

Sieh and Annie were transferred to University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City in critical condition with third-degree burns and smoke inhalation. They were each in a coma for a month. Upon awakening, they spent another month in physical therapy learning how to walk.

Throughout their recovery, they kept asking about their granddaughter. “She is fine. She is in the city,” friends and family said.

The smoke caused permanent damage to Sieh and Annie’s respiratory systems. Annie uses oxygen before bed every night. Sieh Toffoi uses an inhaler and swallows several medications daily. His damaged eyesight has not recovered either.

The man who started the fire, Ronald Murchison, then 51, had ignited a chair in his bedroom when he fell asleep smoking, according to witnesses and police. No charges were filed against him. Murchison had nearly started fires at the house twice before, the lawsuit said. A fire report said Murchison, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was known to the fire department.

The lawsuit alleges the landlord, May, should have warned the Toffois about the danger posed by Murchison, and that the windows were in improper and dangerous condition.

The landlord said he visited the hospital the morning after the fire. “My heart goes out to them, believe me. It’s something that will always be on my mind.” May added that the fire was a “terrible accident” but that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. The house met city codes and had passed inspections, he said. He said he owns 12 rental properties and all meet city codes. When asked about the smoke detectors and windows that wouldn’t open, May repeated that the house had met city codes.

Sieh and Annie Toffoi had cared for Czu since she was an infant, rescuing her from a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast in 1999 where they were also staying. In 2004, the couple gained refugee status and moved to Iowa. Czu was 4 years old. Before the fire, Sieh worked at a meatpacking plant, while Annie worked in child care.

The couple now live on Social Security benefits, because their disabilities prevent them from working. The government pays for a home health aide to visit five days a week. The Toffois don’t know the total cost of their medical bills, but their attorney said they carry hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. “They fled from Africa to save their granddaughter’s life, only to come here and have this happen. It’s just one of the saddest cases I’ve ever worked on. The whole thing is sad.”