Deadly fire engulfs assisted living home: ‘It’s one of your worst nightmares’

By Michael Gold and Kristen Bayrakdarian

The call that emergency workers received just before 1 a.m. Tuesday was distressing: A fire had broken out at an assisted-living facility in the New York City suburbs, and dozens of residents were trapped inside.

When firefighters arrived at the building, the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley, New York, flames were ripping through it. As the fire spread toward the roof, dozens of people were fleeing. Emergency responders and staff began carrying some residents out, then returning to help others evacuate.

“It’s one of your worst nightmares,” said Rockland County’s fire coordinator, Chris Kear. “It’s not your typical house fire where there’s five or six residents. You’re talking about an adult care facility where you have over 100 people.”

As firefighters continued to fight the flames Tuesday morning, officials announced that one resident had died after being taken to a nearby hospital.

A firefighter who had been one of the first to report to the scene was also unaccounted for. He had been trying to rescue a resident from the third floor of the facility when he made an emergency “mayday” call, Kear said. Then the section of the building that he was in collapsed.

“We believe at this time he got lost and just couldn’t find his way out,” Kear said.

The losses were devastating, but officials were quick to note that they could have been far worse. For hours overnight, more than a hundred firefighters from about 25 squads rushed to the scene. They helped between 20 and 30 residents get to safety, then tried to keep the fire from spreading as the sun rose.

“Many, many people were rescued from this fire,” said Ed Day, Rockland County executive. “Much of the damage that could have happened even worse was stopped by those brave firefighters and all the support mechanisms around them.”

Hours later, rescue teams were still searching for the missing firefighter, a volunteer with the Spring Valley Fire Department. A small excavator was brought in to remove rubble from the collapse, and cadaver dogs had arrived to search for bodies amid the smoldering wreckage.

At least 10 residents were taken to nearby hospitals with injuries related to the fire, officials said. Two firefighters were also injured and were expected to recover, Kear said. Authorities have not publicly identified the resident who died or the firefighter who is missing.

Denise Kerr, director of the Evergreen Court facility, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that all 112 residents had been accounted for. The residents were being placed in new homes in the region with the help of the state Health Department.

Kerr said the facility had opened its own inquiry into the fire and that it was cooperating with state and local investigators. None of the facility’s staff had been injured, a representative said.

“Our staff was truly heroic in evacuating residents who were inside the building as the fire spread, and we are forever grateful to the first responders whose actions undoubtedly saved lives,” Kerr said.

In a statement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said state agencies would assist with an investigation into the fire’s cause and oversee the transfer of the facility’s residents to other homes.

“My heart breaks for those who lost loved ones in the fire, and we pray that anyone else involved is safe,” Cuomo said. “The state will continue providing whatever support is needed to ensure that happens.”

Kear and other officials declined to speculate on the cause of the fire, saying that they were looking for any security camera footage or witness accounts that could help explain it.

But the fire, which primarily involved one half of the building, was powerful enough to cause the second floor of the facility to collapse.

As the day stretched on, firefighters were still struggling to completely extinguish flames that were jumping from the remnants of the building into the early afternoon. Fire trucks and personnel continued to arrive in shifts all Tuesday morning, spraying water on the debris.

Smoke and flecks of white ash floated toward a housing community near the site of the fire. The heat was sufficient enough to melt the siding on some buildings nearest to the facility.

Edgar Cajas, 50, said that overnight, the wind had carried burning debris toward his home near the facility.

He climbed to his roof to spray water on the flames with a garden hose, while his family and neighbors gathered outside and watched the massive building burn. It was a scene of “desperation,” he said.

The facility, located in Rockland County about 30 miles north and west of Manhattan, accommodated up to 200 beds, according to the New York Department of Health.

Kear said that the building’s age may have played a role in the speed at which the fire spread.

He did not provide more details on the building’s construction but noted that the facility had a “partial sprinkler system.”

“This is a very old building,” Kear said. “It has been several types of buildings in the past.”

A 2019 inspection of the Evergreen Court Home found several violations related to the condition of the facility, including a violation of New York state’s regulations on smoke and fire protection in adult-care facilities, according to a state Health Department database.

No further details about the violations were available, and it was unclear whether they were resolved. The Health Department did not list any enforcement actions against the facility, and neither a spokesperson for the Health Department nor the building’s owners responded to requests for comment.

Officials with Spring Valley’s buildings department, which is responsible for fire code and building code inspections, did not respond to a request for comment.