Nearly eight months after the October 26 fire, former residents of Birmingham’s Building Trades Towers, who are suing the property owner and managers, still have not gained access to the building or any of their possessions.
Attorneys Frank Buck, Rachel Buck and Lindsay Nadeau are representing 155 residents in a lawsuit against Georgia Holding LLC, Arbour Valley Management LLC and property owner Emmanuel Ku. The lawsuit was filed November 3, 2015.
The lawsuit includes counts alleging negligence; wantonness; and violations of local, state and federal ordinances, laws and regulations, accusing the defendants of concealing defects, breach of contract, false imprisonment and negligence in hiring, training and supervision, among other things.
Under the count of negligence, the lawsuit reads: “The Plaintiffs allege that on said date [on or about October 26, 2015] and at said place [2021 10th Ave. S., Birmingham, Alabama], the Plaintiffs were injured when a fire in the building caused smoke to enter their respective apartments. The Plaintiffs who have various degrees of disability were caused to leave the building and their residences leaving behind all of their belongings, and in doing so were caused to suffer smoke inhalation, as well as other physical injuries. The Plaintiffs were also caused to sustain loss and damage to their property and be left without homes. The fire and subsequent injury and loss and damage to personal property are a result of negligent and wanton behavior.”
Attempts to contact Georgia Holding LLC were unsuccessful. The phone number listed for Georgia Holding LLC is disconnected, and the only address provided is the address of Trades Towers.
Arbour Valley Management has yet to return any phone calls for comment.
“It’s been very, very, very frustrating,” Frank Buck said. “It’s been the most frustrating case I’ve ever been involved in in 41 years. I’m perplexed. I’m even at a loss why. Other than that the owner, you know, of the property, has just refused to do anything. That’s the bottom line. They’ve been sitting back and doing nothing the entire time.”
Defendants have claimed that the building is inaccessible and dangerous because of asbestos and broken elevators. After two previous fires in 2006 and 2011, residents were allowed back into the building in a matter of days.
Trades Towers caught fire on October 26, 2015, around 2:40 p.m. when a resident left food unattended on a stove, according to the incident report filed by the Birmingham Police Department. The Birmingham Police Department and the Birmingham Fire Department responded to the scene and evacuated residents from the building.
According to the Red Cross of Alabama’s Facebook post on October 26, 2015, the Red Cross took residents to Highlands United Methodist Church for shelter. The post states that Red Cross “provided food for victims and first responders, mental health assistance and general needs.”
No deaths occurred in the fire, although firefighters found the body of resident Joseph Leonard during the evacuation.
Another resident, John Barden, who was confined to a wheelchair and unable to leave the building on his own, was not evacuated until two days after the fire. News stories say that management believed Barden was in the hospital during the fire, and firefighters knocked on his door but did not receive an answer.
Rescue personnel reentered the Trades Towers two days later to look for him after a friend of Barden’s said he was worried Barden was still in the building. He was found on the floor of his 10th floor apartment, according to news reports. Captain Bryan Harrell, Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service Department’s public information officer, said that Barden was unconscious when firefighters found him in his smoke-damaged apartment and that Barden suffered from smoke inhalation. Barden died a couple weeks later of a drug overdose.
The property owner, Ku, resides in the Bronx, New York. According to a 2011 news report from Minnesota Public Radio, “as of November 2005, New York City officials issued 2,953 housing code violations, of which 1,763 were hazardous violations on the 13 properties Ku owned at the time.” The same report said that “a 2004 amendment to the National Housing Act effectively prevented Ku from buying any more foreclosed public housing in that state [New York].”
However, since the amendment only affected Ku’s ability to purchase properties in New York, when the original owners of Trades Towers, Birmingham Building Trades Towers, Inc., foreclosed on the building in 2005, Ku purchased it for $4.2 million, according to Bhamwiki. Attempts to contact Ku for comment were unsuccessful.
Alice Franks, a former Trades Towers resident, is one of the 155 plaintiffs being represented by Buck, Buck, and Nadeau. Franks lived in Trades Towers for eight years and celebrated her 89th birthday on June 11.
Franks had just returned home from her stepdaughter’s funeral when smoke began to fill the hallway outside her apartment on October 26. Her daughter, who happened to be visiting Franks at the time, helped Franks grab her purse and they both evacuated the building.
While trying to escape the fire, Franks became separated from her daughter, who had stopped to help someone in a wheelchair, and went up and down several flights of stairs before finding a firefighter who escorted her out. Franks described the experience as “pretty frightening” and said stoves and candles still make her nervous. “It did something to me terribly,” she said.
The damage to Franks was not only emotional but also physical. After being taken to a church for shelter, she was hospitalized for smoke damage to her lungs.
According to Franks, there was no established protocol on what to do during a fire. “We didn’t have any direction when we had this fire. We didn’t know what to do and how to do it,” she said. “My daughter tried to study everything on the wall. She grabbed the fire extinguisher and was going to put out the fire when she saw it.”
In the moment, Franks didn’t worry about leaving her possessions behind because after the previous two fires (in 2006 and 2011), it was only a few days before they were allowed back into the building. “I thought, ‘Well, we’ll be back in a few minutes, you know, or maybe tomorrow, or maybe spend the night at a hotel or something,’” she said.
However, almost eight months later, Franks hasn’t been allowed to retrieve any of her possessions from her apartment. She left behind almost everything she owns. While Franks has been able to get new clothing and furniture with the help of her family and friends, she has not been able to replace everything she left behind.
“I had three flags that came off of my husbands’ caskets. I buried three husbands, and they were all military people. So I really…the things that mean a lot to me that wouldn’t to anybody else is up there. All of my history of my family. All of my family pictures and portraits,” Franks said.
Back in January Franks tried to gain access to her apartment but was turned away by one of the property managers. According to Franks, the property manager assured her that it would only be two weeks before the residents could retrieve their possessions. Franks said this was not the first time that she had been assured that it would only be a short time before they could enter the building.
When she moved into Trades Towers eight years ago, Franks said there was security present at the building all the time. More recently though, Franks said it was hard to find anyone when you needed help. She also mentioned Trades Towers had “a lot of bug problems” as well as mold.
A report from the Jefferson County Department of Health’s Community Environmental Protection Division shows that 58 health complaints about Trades Towers were filed with the Jefferson County Department of Health for various issues, including bedbugs, since April 2015.
After the fires in 2006 and 2011, soot began to fall from the vents in Franks’ closet. “I noticed that all of the vents are in our closets at the top, and after all the other fires, every time I’d shift anything it would almost make me sick because all of that debris came down and the soot on my nice clothes,” she said.
Franks now lives in a new residence with her daughter. She said she misses Trades Towers, especially her former neighbors. “I do miss it. I miss the people. These are hurting people. And I feel like God put me there for a reason,” she said. Franks also described the management as “super nice.”
“They [the management] were always nice to me and I was to them, all of them. And I really did enjoy them,” Franks said.
Like Franks, about half of the 155 plaintiffs have settled in a new residence. The other half are divided among nursing homes, hotels and friends’ homes. One plaintiff remains in a shelter.
Trades Towers was a senior-only residence and home to many veterans who were part of the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program. This program provides homeless veterans with Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) assistance along with a case manager from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
According to Jeff Hester, spokesperson for The Birmingham VA Medical Clinic, the case managers assist the veterans in securing jobs, finding housing and meeting their needs.
Hester said the Birmingham VA had case managers assisting 29 veterans after the 2015 fire. Twenty-one of those veterans were part of the HUD-VASH program, and the remaining eight were part of another homeless assistance program called Shelter Plus Care.
“We worked with them to reissue their vouchers to another location of their choosing,” Hester said. The veterans have now moved to other residences that accept HUD-VASH vouchers.
None of the VA case managers have heard anything about when or if the veterans will be able to access the building, Hester said.
Samuetta Nesbitt, senior vice-president of Public Relations and Community Affairs for United Way of Central Alabama, said that United Way sheltered 38 veterans who were displaced by the fire for three to four days in a hotel.
Twenty-seven of the veterans found shelter with family members and other housing programs, while 11 remained with United Way in the Priority Veteran program, a United Way initiative that supports veterans with a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Nesbitt said the lead case manager for the veterans found that many of the veterans were not aware that they qualified for senior living facilities. United Way and Priority Veteran worked to make the veterans aware of the resources available to them in the community.
Only one veteran remains in the Priority Veteran case management, and the case manager is helping him find housing in a senior living facility, Nesbitt said.
“As far as we know the veterans have not been notified of any date or if they’re going to be able to go back and get their things at all. Not that we know of,” said Orlando Boston, a case manager for Priority Veteran.
As Trades Towers was a senior-only facility, many of the residents are battling health problems while dealing with the aftermath of the fire. Franks wants to get her things out of her apartment and move past October 26. “We’re all trying to live to be more seniors. We’re already seniors but trying to be a triple ‘A’ senior. Trying to be happy,” she said, smiling.
Despite losing her home and her possessions, Franks maintains a positive outlook on life. “I go to the senior center. I’m having fun every day,” she said.
However, after months of little progress, it can be difficult for everyone to stay optimistic. “The other side seems to be stonewalling,” Frank Buck said. “It’s all one excuse after the other.”