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Monday, September 23 2019 @ 01:24 pm EDT

Apartment Fire in Highrise Building in Obarrio - Expats Escape

Safety & Security

By DON WINNER for Panama-Guide.com - Last night at about 8:30 pm apartment number 25A in the Primavera building in Obarrio caught fire. The occupant who smokes has a habit of lighting scented candles to mitigate the smell of cigarette smoke in the apartment. The woman lives alone and last night another female friend came over to visit. Apparently they lit some scented candles, and at some point one of the candles fell onto a couch. That started the fire burning and it eventually grew until all of the contents of the entire living and dining room were fully engaged. The smoke and heat sensors in the apartment actuated the fire alarms in the building, and all of the residents of the other apartments started to evacuate the building. (more)

The 25th of 26 Floors: The Primavera building is located in Obarrio, about one block away from the Bingo 99. The fire occurred on the 25th floor of this 26 story building. At one point the fire had broken through the living room windows, and neighbors who had evacuated the building looked up to see the flames shooting out of the windows.

Expat Residents Escape: I learned about this fire because early this morning I received an email from Myrna and Donald Reed, English speaking expatriates who live on the 12th floor of this building. This is what they sent:

  • Don,

  • Last night about 9:00 PM a fire erupted on the 25th floor. Supposedly from a candle on a sofa. The fire alarm in the building sounded. We ended up calling the guard house to verify a fuego. We have had many false alarms in the building in the past. It was indeed a fire.

  • We went to the 14th floor to help a friend who had just had back surgery on Thursday. The stairwell was full of people evacuating the building. I know you are not supposed to take the elevators, but while we were debating how to get our friend downstairs, the elevator door suddenly opened on its way down. The elevator was empty, so we took a chance and got our friend in the elevator. Went down with no problem.

  • There were 4-5 fire trucks at the building within 10 minutes after the alarm sounded in the building. To my mind this is fast service. We were back in the building within an hour. Damage only to the one apt. However, I would imagine that there will be smoke damage to surrounding apts. There are fire extg. on each floor and also a water hose. But who knows if the people tried to use these and if the water is even hooked up. I know the firemen tried to find a water hook up outside the building and had trouble. There are what I call stand pipes outside the building, but the caps have been removed. Possibly by thieves who are selling the metal.

  • The fire alarms that sounded are on each floor are in front of the elevators. Each apt. also has a fire alarm in the kitchen which is supposed to be wired into the building system. This alarm did not sound. This is something we need to discuss with the owners.

  • Fortunately, within the last month we got fire and theft insurance.

  • There are 26 floors in the building. The building is the Primavera (Calle 56) just across the street from the Bingo 90 parking lot.

  • As far as I know the people on the 26th floor (fire was on the 25th floor on the front side of the building) came down the stairs. Possibly some took the elevators. But when we went from the 12th floor to the 14th floor to see about our friend, the stair wells was packed with people coming down.

  • We were able to see the flames coming out the window from street level. Smoke got into the elevator shaft. I can still smell it this morning and there is a smoke residue on the mirrors in the elevator.

  • Myrna Reed

Using the Elevator: I visited the building and spoke to Myrna and she knows that you're not supposed to use and elevator in case of a fire, but their friend recently had back surgery (one day prior to the fire) and there was no way that person could have walked down 14 floors of stairs. So, they decided to take the risk and they used the elevator and evacuated the building without incident. Most of the residents used the stairs. It's dangerous using an elevator because what has happened in the past is that the fire can damage the elevator controls on the fire floor, and the short circuits mimic someone pushing the call button. You get into the elevator and then unexpectedly the elevator stops and the doors open on the fire floor, and you die. It's only safe to use an elevator in a high rise fire when being escorted and evacuated by firemen who have an emergency override key. They will know on what floor the fire is located, and they can take control of the elevator and make sure that it does not open on the fire floor. Other than that, take the stairs.

Very Hot Contents Fire: The fire burned and completely destroyed all contents in the living and dining rooms. I arrived at the building at the same time as the Fire Inspectors from the Panama City Fire Department, and we accompanied the mother of the apartment owner, who opened the door to let them in to start their investigation. I was allowed just a quick look at the living and dining room, but I was prohibited from taking photos and I also was not allowed enough time to take a hard look at the fire scene, but that's fine. I spoke to the owner's mother as well as the neighbors to secure permission to return after the Safety and Security office of the Fire Department have finished their official inspection, and I can understand why they didn't want me mucking up their fire scene until they had everything they needed.

Fire Alarms Sounded: The Primavera building was completed in the year 2000 and is equipped with smoke and heat sensors in the apartments. The fire alarm in the building activated and all of the occupants started to get out. I spent a lot of time talking to the occupants of the neighboring apartments on the 25th floor where the fire was, and they described what happened. There are four two bedroom apartments per floor, basically one on each corner of the building, with two elevators and a stairway running up the central core. There were fire extinguishers on every floor, as well as working fire hoses with a charged central stand pipe.

Close In Neighbors Evacuate: When the neighbors on the 25th floor opened their doors they encountered very heavy black smoke right in the central hallway, just outside their doors. For the most part they just ducked down low to get under the smoke and made it to the stairway and then went down from there. One man, Santiago, made sure that his family got out safely and then he went to help the owners of the apartment who were trying to battle the fire using the dry chemical fire extinguishers.

Four Full Tanks: The two women had already completely used one full fire extinguisher, and were about halfway through the second when their neighbor Santiago stepped up to help. He finished off the second fire extinguisher and then used two more that the women went and retrieved from the stairwell from lower floors to continue fighting the fire. He said that "every time I stopped shooting the powder, in some areas the fire would spring back to life." He simply poured enough fire smothering dry chemical onto the fire until it was out. By the end of the fourth canister he said "I would just stop and listen for the crackling sound of something burning, and then I would stick the hose from the fire extinguisher down into that and shoot a little more powder until it went out." By the time the firemen arrived the fire was essentially extinguished.

Smoke Inhalation and Minor Burns: The owner's mother said her daughter is now in the Punta Paitilla hospital with smoke inhalation and second degree burns on her arms. Their dog also survived and is now coughing up soot and cleaner after having a bath. She will most likely recover just fine, but the front half of their apartment is a total loss. The fire did not get back into the bedrooms, but they will have some smoke damage. The building structure itself contained the fire between the two heavy poured concrete floors, and the cement block walls kept the fire from spreading to neighboring apartments.

Stairway a.k.a. Chimney: The smoke from this fire poured into the stairway, and it would have been both difficult and dangerous for anyone above this fire to evacuate using the stairs. In Panama the stairways are not pressurized, and the doors in this building are also not fire containment doors - they have a big glass panel in them. There was smoke damage on the walls in the stairway all the way up to the roof. The heat that came out of the apartment that was on fire was hot enough to melt the plastic smoke sensor located in the central hallway in front of the elevators.

It Could Have Lapped: The early and aggressive assault by the neighbor with the fire extinguishers kept this fire from spreading. Right about the time he was hitting the fire, it had broken through the living room windows and could have potentially "lapped" up to the apartment above through the outside of the building, spreading the fire to another apartment.

Stairs Below the Fire Level: If you ever find yourself in this kind of a fire in your building, use the stairs to evacuate the building if the fire is above your level. If the fire alarm is going off and there is, in fact, a fire, then check the central hallway and stairs. If there is no smoke on your level or in the stairway then most likely the fire is above your level. Use the stairs to exit the building as quickly as possible.

Above The Fire Level: If the fire alarm sounds and you find yourself on a level above the fire, think again before you head down the stairs. This is about the fifth time I've investigated one of these apartment content fires in Panama, and in every case the thick smoke made using the stairs to evacuate higher floors dangerous. In every case the fire was contained to just the apartment contents and did not spread to adjacent or adjoining apartments. If I found myself in that kind of situation with my family, I would retreat to the back bedroom, closing all doors and would take refuge in the back of the apartment. Then, call the fire department to let them know where you are that that you are awaiting rescue. Most likely, they will just knock down the fire and send someone to get you out when it's safe. Remember, they have the elevator lockout key and they can use the elevators to evacuate you if necessary.

The Smoke Can Kill You: Most people who die in high rise fires are found on the stairways, overcome by smoke inhalation. They pass out where they are and die from suffocation. The heat from the fire never gets close enough to do any harm, and it's the smoke that will kill or incapacitate you.

Follow-up and Photos Coming: Hopefully next week on Monday or Tuesday the apartment owner will be cleared by the fire department to reenter her apartment, and will grant me access. If and when that happens, I'll be taking some photos and writing a follow-up article.

Got Fire Insurance? Contact my good friend Kevin Bradley if you don't. Fire insurance for the contents of your home or apartment is relatively cheap, and Kevin is the best in the business. Live and learn, right? The best and easiest way to learn is from the mistakes of others. Be safe.

Copyright 2008 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.

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