A December 2022 fire inspection report reveals that the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department did not find the complex to be out of code.
The fire was sparked by two people setting off fireworks on the roof of the four-story building around 10:30 p.m. Nov. 10, causing mass evacuations in the 283-unit complex, according to police. Atlanta fire Chief Rod Smith described the blaze as “a complete anomaly” because it started on the roof, stating that it may have impacted and delayed the alarm and sprinkler systems.
But Dean said the property had several issues with its fire suppression system, including broken control valves and corroded sprinkler heads. He added that Avenium, a property management and real estate company based in New Jersey that manages the Reserve, was aware of the issues.
The complaint claims that Avenium and the other four defendants who owned and operated the complex knew that the fire alarm pull stations and extinguishers had not been inspected or were not operating, that the fire suppression system was not functioning, and that they “made the conscious choice to not repair the fire suppression system to maximize profits to investors.”
Two people, 42-year-old Robert Stokes and 24-year-old Charnelle Gunn, are accused of “intentionally” damaging the property and causing the blaze, according to their arrest warrants. They face charges of criminal damage to property and reckless conduct.
Dean said he thinks the blaze could have been avoided if management didn’t allow people onto the roof.
Residents notified leasing agents that “residents and non-residents were able to access the roof, ignite fireworks and discharge firearms,” the complaint states. The document adds that Avenium and other property owners did not try to prevent roof access.
The earliest evidence of the fire alarm going off is at 10:53 p.m., nearly a half-hour after the start of the fire, the complaint states based on information from the residents who filed the lawsuit. Leasing agents who were on site manually pulled a fire alarm, but “it is unclear if the fire alarm was not functioning from negligence or had been intentionally disabled” due to countless false alarms in the past, according to the complaint.
The blaze, which continued to burn overnight and most of the day Nov. 11, required more than 80 firefighters, who encountered heavy smoke and fire on the roof of the complex. All of the residents were able to evacuate, but 17 people were treated for smoke inhalation and various minor injuries, fire officials said.
Several residents who spoke during the Saturday news conference detailed having to start from scratch after losing nearly everything they’ve ever owned in the fire.
Alyssa Greene recounted getting a video call from her partner and watching her home burn down. She rushed home and they made it out of their apartment with only a couple of backpacks, their cats and their cars.
“I lost every art piece that I’ve done since I was 12 years old. I lost my family’s recipes that have been passed down for almost 100 years. I lost every stuffed animal I’ve had since elementary school,” she said.
Alexander Lanz, who had lived at the complex for two years and worked for Avenium as an assistant community director on the property from December 2021 until July 2022, said he experienced “how negligent the owners were in the regard of the treatment of this building.” He alleges that sprinklers throughout the property were defective and that fire alarms would constantly go off.
Lanz and Greene are both named in the class action lawsuit.
Residents said Saturday that they hadn’t been able to access the building to retrieve belongings. Lanz said several apartments had been looted in the days following the blaze.
The property owners are accused of attempting to “coerce residents into signing a full liability release that included the waiver of ‘the right to sue the owner’” to allow them to enter the building to recover belongings. The complaint also states that the property owners hired a building restoration company to demolish or restore the property, which “will constitute spoliation of evidence.”
Avenium could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon; calls to the rental agency are greeted with a recorded message.