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10 Killed in Blaze at Former Foster Care Center

June 3, 1992

DETROIT (AP) _ The 10 dead were elderly or had mental and physical handicaps. Some of the survivors aren’t sure how old they are.

They were the victims of a blaze Tuesday at a former foster care center that became a boarding house when the state revoked its license 14 years ago because of code violations.

It was Detroit’s worst fire since one in 1945 that killed 15 people.

″I grabbed my blanket and put it over my head and I got out,″ said Delores Strempeck, 60. Theresa Hunter, her 76-year-old roommate at the New Way Development home, got up too, but never made it out.

Another survivor, Walter Harris, said: ″A guy woke me up out of a dead sleep. I was in the bed. I came out the front door.″ Harris couldn’t say how old he was, but he said he had lived at the home for three years.

Four residents and caretaker Tyree Fluckes got out unhurt; two people were in stable condition at a hospital early today.

The boarding house, a three-story brick home in an aging neighborhood on the city’s west side, is owned by Janie Nelson, 69.

It sits across the street from another boarding house owned by Nelson where a 1989 blaze injured several residents. A 1986 fire at yet another boarding house owned by Nelson killed four residents.

Three of Tuesday’s victims had moved to the home after surviving the 1989 fire, including Hunter, who had jumped from a window to escape the earlier blaze, the Detroit Free Press reported.

The home once operated as an adult foster care center, but the state revoked its license in 1978 for violations that included inadequate fire extinguishers, an inadequate number of exits and open stairwells, said Chuck Peller, spokesman for the state Department of Social Services.

The home was reclassified as a boarding house and needed no state license, Peller said. He said adult foster care homes provide a minimum level of care, such as dispensing medication, providing supervision or help with personal care, while boarding houses provide simply room and board.

″We weren’t here, we don’t know what happened,″ said Nelson’s husband, Robert, 76.

Some state officials and lawmakers said Tuesday they would look into having the state regulate boarding houses, but a spokesman for Gov. John Engler rejected the idea.

Arson Capt. Donald B. Robinson said the fire started in the kitchen. Investigators were examining whether it was caused by carelessly discarded cigarettes.

The home had no fire escapes and only one exit from the third floor, fire officials said.

Fluckes said smoke alarms went off shortly after 2 a.m. He, a resident and several neighbors said they tried to call emergency dispatchers, but the 911 line was busy.

Records showed the first call to 911 was made at 2:18 a.m., but the caller didn’t respond to the dispatcher, said Robert Berg, a spokesman for Mayor Coleman Young. The fire was reported in a call received at 2:20 a.m., and the fire truck arrived at 2:25, Berg said.

Richard Dolley, chief of Emergency Medical Services, said the 911 system is equipped to handle 21 calls at a time.

″We don’t know how long it was burning before it was reported,″ Fire Chief Harold Watkins said. ″When (firefighters) got there, they reported fire coming out of all openings.″

Watkins said all the victims were found in their rooms, but he didn’t know whether they were in bed or trying to escape.

At least four of the dead had lived at the home for over 20 years, the Free Press reported. Two were schizophrenic, and others had emotional problems.

″They were like a bunch of children,″ said Mary Twilley, a part-time cook at the home. ″I would be serving them breakfast right now. This whole situation is just heartbreaking.″