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Report: Fox fire started in attic area. Firefighters didn't check attic during first response to school

Report: Fox fire started in attic area. Firefighters didn't check attic during first response to school
Posted at 5:42 PM, Jul 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-05 18:25:11-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Parents in Richmond's Fox community said they were left with more questions than answers after reading and processing the findings of the Fox fire investigation over the long holiday weekend.

The report found the fire was an accident in nature, but investigators did not pinpoint a cause.

“To wait five months for something that says, 'Well, we just really don't know,' is frustrating," said Fox mom, Chloe Rote.

Rote, who has a rising second-grader at William Fox Elementary, had been anticipating the results of the fire investigation since February when her son's school burned down. However, she was disappointed after reading it through.

“There's not a lot of detail there," she said.

Rote also expressed concern about how the fire department communicated the news to the public. Richmond Fire issued a press release just before 6 p.m. Friday before a holiday weekend, a decision Rote said: "was not made with much care for the RPS community."

“It did feel very much like they wanted to push it out in a way that it wouldn't allow for questions to be asked," Rote said. "Instead of addressing us as members of the same community, the report came out right before anyone who could answer questions was going to be gone for three days."

Rote said she had several questions about the firefighters' initial response to Fox the night of the fire, which was not mentioned in RFD's press release or investigation report.

For background, fire crews responded to Fox twice on February 11. They were first called to the building at 9:29 p.m. after a passerby reported strobe lights and alarm sounds.

Firefighters struggled to gain access to the building because they could not get in touch with RPS security personnel. Once inside, after manipulating a lock, security footage showed them inside for 12 minutes before clearing the school and leaving.

“I’m not a firefighting professional, but it doesn't seem like that is enough time to clear a three-story structure," Rote said.

Firefighters were called back to the school 26 minutes later to massive flames.

RFD hadn't responded to CBS 6's questions about the response time as of Tuesday evening.

During the initial response, firefighters did not check the attic. The newly released investigation report identified the origin of the fire as the attic area on the second floor which included a separate classroom and auditorium.

Investigators said they haven't been able to access the attic space yet and will not be able to provide more information until the City of Richmond and the insurance company, VaCorp, parts of the investigation are complete.

“I was disappointed to read in the report that the location of the fire was in that topmost story, and that's a place that they didn't even go to," Rote said.

RFD hadn't responded to CBS 6's questions about checking the attic as of Tuesday evening.

However, RFD initially said it is only protocol for firefighters to search the attic when there's an indication of a fire. A spokesperson said this was not a written documented protocol, but rather an industry-standard RFD follows.

The school's faulty alarm panel never sent out an emergency communication the night of the fire, because RPS did not reprogram it with the correct phone number to dial out. The panel was also in "trouble mode" when firefighters first arrived on the scene, meaning they did not understand what it was signaling to them.

The investigation report, which was provided to CBS 6 through a Freedom of Information Act request, is redacted in several areas. The blacked-out findings are included under the "Exposure Room - Areas" section in which investigators appeared to list "the absence or presence of physical evidence." Nearly all of the "points considered" section is also redacted toward the bottom of the report.

The fire department gave multiple reasons for exemptions at the beginning of the report including information that could jeopardize one's safety. However, it's unknown which exemptions apply to which redactions.

"It's not clear what would need to be taken out of the report," Rote said.

RFD's FOIA officer had not yet responded to CBS 6's questions about redactions as of Tuesday evening.

The report sheds light on multiple issues inside the building during the days leading up to the fire.

According to an interview that investigators conducted with the school's principal, Daniela Jacobs, those problems included a rodent infestation, mice chewing through the wiring in the attic, and lights suddenly going out in the building for several days even with the switch on.

RPS work orders, obtained by CBS 6 through a Freedom of Information Act request, showed a mice infestation was reported on February 3. Records showed wiring was repaired on February 8 for a wall thermostat that wasn't working.

When CBS 6 asked back in April which actions were taken to address the issue, an RPS spokesperson said, "RPS facilities did contact Orkin Pest Control to treat the mice."

"Did the mice infestation get worse? Was there damage to wiring on top of things that we already knew are happening in this older structure? It doesn't seem that care was taken in that regard," Rote said.

While Rote said Fox parents are exhausted from the challenges of the last five months, she said they'll continue to dig deeper into the report and advocate for the answers they deserve.

"We have the ability to read this [the report] really critically and press hard and in a sustained fashion, and I think that it is imperative upon us to do that," Rote said.

CBS 6 requested an interview with the Richmond Fire Department Tuesday. A spokesperson said no one was available.

In March, when CBS 6 pressed the fire department for more answers surrounding the investigation, a spokesperson said, "We maintain that we will thoroughly answer questions surrounding the Fox Elementary school fire once the investigation is complete."

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