The New York Times
March 1, 2003
Suspect in Nursing Home Fire Is Cooperating With Inquiry
By ANTHONY DePALMA
HARTFORD, CT - Feb. 28-Four nursing home patients remained in critical condition and eight others were still being treated in local hospitals as the police continued to investigate the deadly fire that swept through the Greenwood Health Center early Wednesday morning.
The primary suspect, a 23-year-old Hartford woman with multiple sclerosis and a history of drug abuse who was admitted to the nursing home less than a month ago, is cooperating with investigators. Detectives are interviewing other patients and gathering additional evidence at the nursing home where 10 severely disabled patients were killed by the fire, which filled the corridors with blinding smoke and hampered rescue efforts.
"At this point we have not determined what the cause of the fire was," said Lt. Paul B. Hammick, commander of the major crimes division of the Hartford Police Department. He denied a newspaper report this morning that said high-ranking police officials believed the fire started when the suspect, Lesley Andino, accidentally set her bed sheets on fire at 2:30 a.m. with a cigarette lighter.
"It is not the official position of this division that this is an accident," Lieutenant Hammick said. "More than a dozen detectives, practically our entire staff, are working in one way or another on this case."
He said it would take some time for evidence seized at the home to be thoroughly analyzed so that fire investigators can determine how and where the fire started. Only then, he added, would a determination be made about whether the fire was set intentionally or accidentally, and whether criminal charges would be brought.
As the investigation proceeds, Connecticut lawmakers and nursing home advocates are preparing for a public hearing on Tuesday to look at some of the troubling issues raised by the fire. In particular, the legislators want to examine the appropriateness of placing young patients with mental or emotional problems in nursing homes designed to handle mostly elderly patients with physical disabilities. They are also concerned with and intend to pursue questions of staffing levels and fire safety.
"This is a horrible tragedy and the worst part is that we are reacting to things that should already have been taken care of," said Teresa C. Cusano, the state's nursing home ombudsman for the last six years. "A 23-year-old woman does not belong in a nursing home."
Legislators will look into changing laws that require only newly built nursing homes to install fire sprinklers. They will also debate the adequacy of current staffing requirements.
On the night of the fire, 12 employees were on duty at Greenwood, caring for 148 patients, most of whom were so disabled they could not move on their own when the fire started. Yet, the staffing level met state requirements.
"If there had been more sprinklers and more staff in place, we would not have had 10 people dead," said Mrs. Cusano, whose office investigates complaints and has the power to seek administrative action against nursing home operators.
She said she did not expect any action against the operators of Greenwood, which had recently passed fire safety inspections and apparently was meeting all codes and requirements.
"I don't fault Greenwood," Mrs. Cusano said. "What I fault is the system, and the system has to change."
This afternoon, Marian Schumaker, the 60-year-old nursing supervisor who burned her hands when she made several attempts to evacuate patients before firemen forced her to leave, showed up for work, going back to some of the same rooms and hallways where she had witnessed the horror earlier in the week.
"Of course you relive it," she said. She refused to say whether there had been any unusual tension in the nursing home in the days before the fire indicating tensions or problems among patients.
"It is not in the realm of my role to talk about that," she said.
Veronica Cretella, the administrator of Greenwood, told reporters this afternoon outside the nursing home that family members and visitors would be welcomed into the center this weekend to check on the patients who remain in the areas of the home not damaged by the fire.
Some families have complained that they have not been allowed inside to see their relatives.
The owners of Greenwood, the Lexington Health Care Group of Farmington, Conn., have said they plan to meet with creditors to discuss the company's deepening financial problems. The company purchased Greenwood in 1997.
Union leaders representing the health care workers at Greenwood, who went on strike in 2001, said the company is close to declaring bankruptcy.
Lexington operates eight nursing homes in Connecticut with a total of 1,033 beds, according to the company's most recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Dennis Steele, a founder of a private organization called Member of the Family, which collects and disseminates information on the nation's nursing homes, said Greenwood had several complaints for having caused harm to patients in the last few years, according to government records.
"They show a trend that isn't very good," Mr. Steele said.
The company has not responded to requests for comment.