A deadly fire in a Greensboro apartment building left residents stricken with grief, confusion and asking questions about how to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. The fire, which killed 5 children in a building housing many non-English speaking refugees, led residents to demand a city-performed inspection. The results were shocking: Inspectors reported more than 200 safety violations.
Now the city of Greensboro and some of its most impoverished residents must work to find ways to solve a challenging problem with low-income housing, where safety standards are often overlooked, and complaints often go unaddressed until tragedy strikes. These issues are faced around the nation, and all too often, as with the December 2017 Ghost Ship Warehouse fire in Oakland, the results are catastrophic.
Victims' Father Says Stove Was Problematic; Fire Officials Say Unattended Food Was Cause
It was in the early morning hours—just 3:54 a.m.—of May 12, 2018, that the fire broke out in the apartment complex at 3100 Summit Avenue. Mugabo Emmanuel, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was inside his family's apartment with his five children when, according to Greensboro fire officials, a fire originated at the kitchen stove and quickly began to spread through the apartment. Within minutes the entire apartment was ablaze, and thick smoke spread through the air.
Emmanuel tried to help each of his children escape from the burning apartment. Less than five minutes after receiving the call, firefighters arrived on scene to assist. Sadly, it was too late. Two of the children were pronounced dead at the scene, and Emmanuel and his other three children were transferred to local hospitals for treatment. Only Emmanuel survived, with the remaining three children dying at Brenner Children's Hospital on Mother's Day, one day after the fire.
The Greensboro Fire Department performed an investigation into the fire and determined that food had been left on the stove, causing the fire. Assistant Fire Chief Dwayne Church told reporters that they had interviewed Emmanuel and his wife and that was how they came to the conclusions.
Friends of the Emmanuel family, however, insist that Mugabo had problems with the stove and had even told the building managers that small fires had been starting around the stove. Say Flomo, who says he is close with the family, told Spectrum News that the Emmanuel family would turn off a burner, but that it wouldn't turn off for another two to three hours. Flomo says he called the landlord at least two times to get the problem addressed, but that nobody ever came to look at the stove.
Church said that during interviews with Emmanuel and his wife the Fire Department asked about the faulty stove, and that the parents said that there had been a stove issue, but that it had been resolved. The smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in the apartment were not working at the time of the fire.#BREAKING : Smoke alarms not working in apartment where deadly fire happened in Greensboro https://t.co/fsAWf0mBJF pic.twitter.com/ME5ybDMSwn— FOX8 WGHP (@myfox8) May 14, 2018
A final report on the Greensboro apartment fire is expected by the end of June.
City Inspection Turns Up Hundreds of Violations at 3100 Summit Ave Apartments
A malfunctioning stove would fit with residents' descriptions of life at 3100 Summit Avenue. Residents, many of whom do not speak English and have to work with fellow English-speaking residents or interpreters to raise concerns, talk of broken appliances, rodents, and a lack of electricity and water.
The fatal fire served as an impetus for action, with residents signing a petition that ultimately required the city to perform a full inspection of the apartment building. That inspection uncovered more than 200 violations.
Those violations included water leaks, roof leaks, exposed wiring, broken windows, broken appliances, and improperly labeled panels and fuses. These examples, however, are what city officials consider minor violations. The major ones—related to non-running water, a lack of working smoke detectors, and sewage leaking—got some of the apartments condemned, but the building owners fixed those violations after the inspection.
Elizabeth Benton is the Greensboro code compliance division manager and appeared relatively unfazed about the multitude of violations discovered during the inspection. Benton cited her 20-year history in inspections and said that she'd seen worse and seen better.
Byron Gladden was instrumental in starting the petition that got the building inspected and also helped set up funeral services for the five Emmanuel children. Like Benton, he was not surprised by the results of the inspection, but he expressed more concern about what that says about northeast Greensboro. Gladden wants the city to work harder to provide resources for non-English speaking citizens and people of color in the area, who he says don't have many options.
ARCO Realty Insists They Handled Upkeep Appropriately
For their part ARCO Realty, the apartment building owners, have expressed sadness over the incident, but have also been quick to say that they had no part in what happened.
In a statement, the company pointed to the fire department's determined cause and said that there was no problem with the stove or smoke detectors in the apartment. The fire, they said, was a "tragic accident unrelated to anything ARCO did or did not do."
The realty company also said they fully renovated the building 18 months prior—though they did not mention that this was to prevent it from being shut down by the city—and that officials inspected each unit at the time.
Family and Friends Mourn Lives Cut Short in Greensboro, NC Apartment Fire
On May 26, 2018, friends and family of the five young children killed in the Greensboro fire gathered to say their final goodbyes.
More than 400 people joined together at Mount Zion Baptist Church of Greensboro to honor the short lives of the children whose lives were cut so short.
Roy Hope was a Girl Scout, as was her sister, seven-year-old Lisa Josiane. Their little brother, five-year-old Christopher Danny, had dreams of being a truck driver when he got older, and another of their little brothers, three-year-old Joshua John, loved to spend time with the two girls whenever he could. The youngest of the siblings, one-year-old Trump Emmanuel Kamali, was born in the U.S. only months after the family made the move.I just spoke with the uncle of the 5 children who died from a house fire in Greensboro. He tells me the family is praying and relying on God to guide them through this. He shared this picture of some of the kids who passed away @WFMY Photo courtesy: Ananiya Bizimana pic.twitter.com/ozB0FCR7NH— Jessica Mensch (@Jessmensch) May 15, 2018
Jean Bosco has long worked as an interpreter for the Emmanuel family and lamented what the family struggled through only to suffer this tragedy.
"You escape life in Africa which is very hard. And you come here to make the American dream," Bosco told WFMY News. "And then life is cut short by this."
A GoFundMe set up for the family's expenses raised $55,768 before the campaign is marked as complete.