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St. Louis fire chief questions building materials in apartment fire

Thursday, July 19, 2012 | 3:27 p.m. CDT; updated 4:22 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 19, 2012

ST. LOUIS — A fire that destroyed a 197-unit apartment in St. Louis is stirring debate about the use of lightweight, synthetic building materials over brick and real wood.

The fire broke out Tuesday night at the apartment complex in the city's Central West End, near the Saint Louis University campus. No one was killed or injured, but about 250 residents were displaced.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson initially thought the fire moved so quickly that the building lacked fire walls or other barriers. He stepped back from those comments on Wednesday but said he still has questions about the materials used for the building, even if they were allowed by code.

About 100 people inside the complex got out. It took about 160 firefighters from the city and St. Louis County to put out the blaze. A suspected arson caused about $12 million in damage when the building was under construction in 2007, but this time, firefighters found nothing suspicious. An investigation into the cause should take about a week, Jenkerson said. The building was a total loss.

City officials confirmed that the four-story structure was built to code, had working sprinklers and had "draft stops" that are designed to slow the spread of fire in the attic. Officials believe the fire started above the ceiling of a top-floor unit.

Still, Jenkerson expressed concerns about the building materials.

"Like every fire chief, I look at the (building) code every year," he said. "We have a risk perspective that's different from the building trades. You've got to take the costs and weigh it against the risk."

Eddie Roth, the city's public safety director, said questions of using lightweight building materials are part of "a national debate" and not unique to St. Louis, which follows national building codes.

Susan Jennings of EdR Collegiate Housing of Memphis, Tenn., which owns and manages the apartments, said the company will review and respond after the investigation is complete.

EdR Collegiate Housing also owns and manages The Reserve apartment complex in Columbia.

The fire burned quickly through the attic. There were no reported problems with sprinklers, fire doors and alarms in the apartments and public areas of the building.

St. Louis buildings in the past were constructed primarily of masonry and other fire-resistant material. Often, only the roof and floor joists were made of wood. As a result, masonry walls would often remain standing in a fire, said Len Toenjes, president of Associated General Contractors of St. Louis.

Modern structures are made largely of a wooden frame and veneers of brick or stucco. That allows fire to spread more quickly, though the risk to occupants has been partly offset by the advent of sprinklers, electronic detection of smoke and fire and other safety innovations.

But some experts say fires can spread so quickly in newer buildings of lightweight construction that occupants have only a few minutes to escape.

Decades ago, occupants of structures built largely of masonry and other solid materials could hope to have 15 to 17 minutes to escape a fire before a collapse took place, said Chris Gaut, a former fire marshal in Eureka. In newer buildings, he said the escape window is as little as three to seven minutes.


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