It’s been four days since the Abellon Condominiums building went up in flames, displacing forty-seven residents from the twelve units that made up the complex. The investigation is ongoing and there are already preliminary reports claiming the fire had been started in a kitchen on the 2nd floor. We know that eventually, investigators will come to the conclusion as to what caused the fire exactly and we’ll all simply hope for the best for the displaced residents, but that’s not the point here.
Yes the fire may have been started by a resident but every bit of this disaster was made possible by the failures of both the City of McAllen and a potentially negligent owner.
The Monitor’s Molly Smith published an article detailing the on-going investigation into what caused the fire. In her article, Smith quoted McAllen Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Gerald Williamson saying that “12 units in the building did not have smoke detectors and the building was not equipped with a working fire alarm system.” and that “the City of McAllen Building Department (had) yet to inspect the building to determine whether it can be occupied.”
The article also stated the following:
Although the McAllen Fire Department does not have a mandatory inspection program for residential buildings in the city, landlords and residents can request for their apartment or home to undergo a courtesy inspection. Williamson could not say if and when the building was last inspected, nor could he comment as to whether it was in violation of city code due to the lack of an alarm system.
So let’s summarize all three of these sound bites: Not a single unit of the twelve had a smoke detector nor a working fire alarm system, at no point was the city or the Fire Marshal required to even inspect the building for smoke detectors or a working fire alarm system and the building itself has never been inspected to determine of it was safe to live there and ensure the safety of 40 or more occupants.
Got it. So this is what an institutional and systematic failure looks like.
So where do we begin to even dig up just WHO on Earth is to blame for such a dubiously shitty system?
According to the McAllen municipal code, maybe we can start with the Fire Department and McAllen Code Enforcement:
ARTICLE 5. – FIRE PREVENTION AND PROTECTION
Sec. 3. – Powers and duties of fire department and chief; board of firemen.
The fire department and the fire chief are charged with the duties of enforcing all of the fire ordinances of McAllen
Ok, so we’re off to a decent start. It makes sense that the Fire Chief and the fire dept. WOULD be in charge of enforcing all fire ordinances, meaning any and all rules and regulations regarding the safety of certain buildings that occupy forty or more residents at a single time. Great, but let’s dig a bit deeper:
PART II CODE OF ORDINANCES
CHAPTER 50 – FIRE PROTECTION AND PREVENTION
ARTICLE 1. – IN GENERAL
Sec. 50-44. – Inspection of premises; ordering removal or repair of dangerous conditions.
The fire marshal or his designee shall have the right at all reasonable hours, for the purpose of examination, to enter into and upon any and all buildings and premises within the city.
It shall be the fire marshal’s duty to enter upon any mercantile, manufacturing or public building on a periodic basis to conduct a thorough examination where in his professional opinion circumstances so require.
Whenever the fire marshal shall find any building or other structure which for any cause is especially liable to fire and whenever he shall find conditions or materials which may be dangerous in character or liable to cause or promote fire or create conditions dangerous to firefighters or occupants, he shall order such materials or conditions to be removed or remedied, and such order shall be forthwith complied with by the owner or occupant of the building or premises. All such orders shall be in writing and delivered to the owner or person otherwise in control of such premises.
So here’s where it gets a bit shitty. In McAllen’s code of ordinances, the Fire department is not required to inspect residential buildings housing multiple family units together “on a periodic basis” unless they are called out to. Although residents can call the fire department to schedule an inspection, most are left at the mercy of their landlord since most tenants are not even aware that they have a right to an inspection and have every interest to not get themselves on their landlord’s shit list.
So who owned these units, anyway? The property was actually a group of condos, which are, for those who know a little bit about properties, typically have individual owners per unit.
So in the interest of finding out who exactly these people were, I searched the property address (2313 Iris Ave.) on the Hidalgo CAD property search site and got the following results:
Hidalgo County lists Juan J De La Garza and Nancy De La Garza as the owners of units 101, 102, 103, 104, 205, 206, 207, 208, 209, 210, 211, 212, all of which perished in last Friday’s fire. Effectively they were the owners of the entire building.
A quick google search of Juan J De La Garza got me to his personal Facebook profile, his Facebook Broker Page, and his company, De La Garza Realty Group’s Facebook Page, as well as his mixes as DJ Trajic (his email is email@example.com if you need a DJ who moonlights as a broker)
I messaged Juan J De La Garza about Deputy Marshal Williamson’s quotes that none of the units had smoke detectors or a working fire system via Facebook and here was our conversation in full:
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So, according to De La Garza’s versions of the events, each and every single resident took out the battery in each of their smoke detectors and that Deputy Fire Marshal Williamson was misquoted, apparently.
The Texas Property Code states that there should have been at least twelve smoke alarms in that building (assuming each condo is a one bedroom, etc.). Also, according to the Texas Property Code, the landlord has a lawful duty to inspect every smoke alarm at the time of a new tenant arrival to ensure that it is in working condition. So knowing these facts, and assuming he followed the law and inspected each smoke detector at the time each tenant moved in, that would also assume that there hadn’t been a new tenant in quite some time.
Enter Angelica Cerino, a new tenant who lost everything in that fire when KRGV Channel 5 reported her story.
Again, with this information, I reached out to Deputy Fire Marshal Williamson for some clarification to see if he was, in fact, misquoted:
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Apparently, he believes he was quoted accurately.
Again, I tried drawing water from the De La Garza well and came up empty this time:
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Understandably, it would be nearly impossible for the fire department and city code enforcement to both knock on every single resident’s door to check for fire hazards OR for private citizens to have the resources to adequately keep their homes up to a stringent fire code, but it’s beyond me that a city the size of McAllen has no provisions in place to duly inspect large resident buildings higher than one floor that occupy multiple families in the event of a fire.
It’s equally unbelievable that a building and it’s inadequate fire alarm system can be “grandfathered” in without some periodic inspection to ensure the safety of their residents.
The only liability De La Garza would face would potentially derive from whether or not he inspected Angelica Cerino’s smoke alarm before she moved in as required by law. Legally, there is no problem with De La Garza wiping his hands clean of the ELEVEN other units that did not have a properly functioning smoke alarm (albeit from a battery removal or not) or even a working fire alarm system for the entire building.
There’s no justice, no reprieve or remedy for most of these people who probably couldn’t afford to live anywhere else and that’s fucking stupid.
We’ll keep you updated if De La Garza, McAllen Fire Department, McAllen Health and Code Enforcement reach out to us.
UPDATE: Deputy Fire Marshal Williamson got sick of my shit, so I asked the other guy: