16th Anniversary of Deadly Shenandoah Homes Fire

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December 14th marks the 16th anniversary since the deadly fire at Shenandoah Homes in Roanoke County. Four People lost their lives in the fire that night. I was not in Roanoke at the time. As a matter of fact I was not even in High School at the time. So what I have learned of the fire, I have been told, or I have read. I will not comment on the Fire other than four people perished and 12+ were injured.

What I have done is taken excerpts from the Roanoke Times articles and letters to the editor about the fire and some of the issues which resulted from the fire. The information below was gathered from NewsBank which anyone can access through the Salem Library or online at the Salem Libraries Website with a library card. It is a great source for information.

Roanoke Times, The (VA)
January 3, 1990
The blackened third-floor window at Shenandoah Homes represents only a bad memory now and some of the people who have returned after the fire said today they are glad to be back.

The fire was Dec. 14. It took four lives and all 170 residents had to be evacuated in subfreezing weather. Today, Dorothy Jarrett, 74, was back in her first-floor apartment and she said the memory of the early morning fire “doesn’t bother me a bit.”

“It could have happened somewhere else,” she said.

Lewis Johnson, 83 and a man who helped get people out of the south side of the first floor the night of the fire, said he wasn’t bothered by the memory.

“Life goes on,” Johnson said. “You’re not scared. It could happen anywhere. In your home or anywhere else.”…”

Roanoke Times, The (VA)
January 2, 1990
Estimated printed pages: 1

A LOT HAS been said about the response time for the fire at Shenandoah Homes. I and my family are eternally grateful for the fire department, rescue squad and volunteers who helped to get the residents out. The staff is to be commended.

My mother has lived there for two years. By the grace of God and all the above-mentioned, she was taken out safe…”

Roanoke Times, The (VA)
January 3, 1990
Estimated printed pages: 2

“THE RESPONSE to the Shenandoah Homes disaster was disastrous. The facts are similar to that of a 1976 fire at Spanish Trace apartments. Three people died there. I hope the consolidation plan will address certain key issues pertaining to emergency response to potential multicasualty incidents.

Spanish Trace was in an area recently annexed by the city of Roanoke. the closest fire station in the city was at 24th St. and Melrose Avenue, too far for a five-minute response time. The closest was Salem Fire Department’s No. 2 station on Electric Road, close enough for a five-minute response. The personnel and equipment from this station were never asked to respond.
After the Roanoke Fire Department arrived, they asked Salem to send a ladder truck, which was sent from the downtown station. Roanoke also asked for the county to respond, but by now it was too late for any further rescue. Nothing much politically has changed since then.

I believe the closest qualified personnel and equipment should respond to emergencies, no matter in whose political boundary they occur. Volunteer firefighters and paramedics take the same training and testing as the paid ones do.

At the Shenandoah Homes fire, no one was at the Hollins Fire Station when the call went out. I invite the politicians to consider some incentives to keep volunteers at the stations at night:

Provide adequate facilities for eating, sleeping and showering.

Include the volunteers in a pension or retirement plan.

Decrease the personal property tax by 1/7 to the volunteers if they have to spend one night a week away from home and at the station.

I believe these incentives, and others, will insure a quality response and not burden the taxpayers much.”


Roanoke Times, The (VA)
January 3, 1990
Estimated printed pages: 2

“IF A RECURRENCE of the tragedy at Shenandoah Homes is to be avoided, deliberate steps must be taken. While the unusual delay in response by the Roanoke County Fire Department is regrettable, the solution is not to spend $6 million to provide a paid staff in all the county fire departments; a similar delay could be expected in the event of two incidents occurring in quick succession. Perhaps the staff of first-response volunteer firefighters could remain in the stations during periods of predicted extreme weather conditions, thus partly eliminating the problem of delay.

More important than the response of emergency agencies is the placement of automatic fire detection and suppression systems that will prevent an incident from reaching disastrous proportions. Local fire officials who advocate legislation requiring the installation of sprinkler systems throughout facilities such as Shenandoah Homes are on target.
Hazards such as overloaded electrical circuits and smoking in bed are difficult or impossible to eliminate. Partial sprinkler systems, covering only select areas, offer a false sense of security.

However, a properly maintained, total coverage sprinkler system is, according to the National Fire Protection Association, approximately 99 percent reliable in extinguishing a fire before it consumes synthetic bedding, upholstered furniture, carpeting and other combustibles found in every home, all of which produce poisonous gases when they burn. Most fire fatalities are a result of exposure to these gases…”

Roanoke Times, The (VA)
January 8, 1990
Estimated printed pages: 2

“ROANOKE County’s volunteer firefighters performed heroically in battling the fatal fire at Shenandoah Homes. If some of our readers inferred from our editorials that we believe otherwise, let us set the record straight.

Our criticism of the response to the Shenandoah Homes fire was not directed at the firefighters. They did their jobs bravely and well under very adverse circumstances.
Our call for a unified emergency-response system throughout the valley has nothing to do with the caliber of the people who make up the county’s volunteer fire departments. They’re sterling, public-spirited folks, and thank God for them.

What we have said, and what we continue to believe, is that the area is entitled to a better system: a system through which an emergency call will go to the station in the best position to respond; a system that provides an on-duty response crew at all times of day and night. In calling for such a system, we tried to pay tribute to the performance of the individuals who did respond to the Shenandoah Homes fire. We tried to make it clear that the delay in responding was not the fault of the volunteers who crawled out of warm beds and braved icy streets to get to the scene. If our praise for the volunteers got buried in our criticism of the system, then allow us to reiterate that praise.

On Dec. 20, our lead editorial made this observation:

By all reports, county firefighters and sheriff’s deputies worked effectively and courageously once they arrived. Conditions – icy subfreezing weather – made a difficult job all the harder. The heroism of the rescuers almost certainly kept the fire from claiming more lives than it did. On this score, the rescuers can hold their heads high.

On Dec. 30, again in a lead editorial, we stated:

The spate of fires has put a tremendous burden on firefighters, be they paid professionals . . . or unpaid volunteers . . . Where one’s own life and the lives of others are often at stake, the burden can be emotional as well as physical. One purpose of working toward a unified emergency-response system throughout the valley is to ease that burden.

We’re grateful for the jobs Roanoke Valley firefighters are doing. Our criticism has been aimed at the system, and not at the fine people who try to make the system work…”

There were other fires at Shenandoah Homes throughout the years. This was the worst of them. Hopefully there will not be any more devistating fires like this in the Roanoke Valley. Unfortunately there are still buildings like this which are not sprinklered even today.

It is interesting to see that, even then, they were talking about a Regional/Unified Fire-EMS Department.

Thanks to Travis Collins for the idea of posting this incident as well as scanning the images from the RFFA archives.

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