10 Years After Hartford Nursing Home Fire, Victims Remembered

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HARTFORD — — Marian Schumaker still vividly recalls the early morning 10 years ago when fire tore through the Greenwood Health Center, killing 16 patients.

The nursing supervisor, now 70, ran into a burning bedroom and helped pull an elderly woman from flames. Despite her efforts, which left her with second-degree burns to her back and hands, the partially paralyzed patient, 72-year-old Lois Morin, died.

"It was a terrible, very tragic night. A lot of people wonder how could this happen," Schumaker said. "I don't have an answer to that."

The blaze broke out at the nursing home around 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 26, 2003, after Morin's roommate, a physically and mentally ill patient in her 20s, set fire to her blankets with a lighter. Suffocating smoke billowed through the home, which housed more than 100 patients, many of whom could not move themselves. Ten — including a double-amputee found burned to death on the floor of his room — died instantly. Six more would succumb to their injuries later.

Schumaker was among 23 people — and the only staff member — who were injured. Firefighters recalled then that the nursing supervisor, her face covered in soot, yanked people out of the center of the blaze, despite her own injuries.

"That's what I call a hero," Fire Chief Charles Teale said at the time.

Schumaker still recalls the dead, but goes on helping the living at the home, which has been renamed Park Place Health Center.

Ten years later, lawyers are still fighting over how much each of the Greenwood victims' lives are worth based on an insurance policy.

And, partly as a result of the blaze, the 15,700 nursing homes nationwide that serve more than 1.4 million residents face an August deadline to install sprinklers if they want to continue serving Medicaid and medicare patients, which bring in tens of billions of dollars in revenue.

'We Had No Choice'

Schumaker said she remembers being alerted to the fire after Leslie Andino, a 23-year-old mother of three suffering from multiple sclerosis, depression and drug abuse, told staff her room was on fire. Schumaker said she ran with two other workers to the room Andino shared with Morin only to find a wall of flames blocking the doorway. The group ran through a bathroom, which connected the burning room to another, to get to an hysterical and mostly immobile Morin, who was "just a minute from being burned," according to Schumaker.

The curtain between the two beds in the room had caught fire, she said.

"We put her onto a blanket and dragged her out and away from the flames," Schumaker said. "We had no choice. We just got her on the floor and dragged her out."

Schumaker stayed at the elderly woman's side until firefighters arrived and ordered Schumaker out of the building, which was rapidly filling with smoke. Morin, like many others, later died as a result of smoke inhalation.

Once out of the building, Schumaker said, she rushed around trying to help others. She recalled keeping patients warm because the temperature was in the single digits; setting up a triage center in another wing of the nursing home; and, once the fire was under control, helping to unhook patients from oxygen tanks so firefighters could bring them to safety.

Lawyers representing 13 of the victims — some of whom, like Morin, had family — charged in personal injury civil suits that the nursing home was negligent because it failed to have sprinklers, to conduct fire drills and to supervise Andino.

"Just about every rule that could've been broken was broken," said Louis Marticchio, the lawyer for the Morin family.

The subsequent U.S. Government Accountability Office probe found that the nursing home staff contributed to the loss of life by, for example, failing to close the doors to patients' rooms after the fire broke out. The federal probe also found that Greenwood staff members had provided inaccurate information about how often nighttime fire drills were conducted.

Schumaker declined to comment on those allegations.

The defendants, including the state health-care license holder, Lexington Highgreen Holding Inc., and the firm that leased the property, Lexington Healthcare Group Inc., maintain that they are not liable. Lawyers for the victims said both agencies have declared bankruptcy, but a court had allowed them to seek damages through an insurance policy.

Fight Over Damages

But the personal injury cases can't move forward until the parameters of the policy are determined. How much each victim or estate is entitled to if the nursing home is found liable has yet to be decided. The Connecticut Supreme Court is considering the matter.

While lawyers for the victims maintain each victim is entitled to $500,000, lawyers for Greenwood's insurance company maintain that the total payout allowed by the policy is $250,000, which would have to be split — allowing each to collect less than $20,000 if the home is found liable.


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