ORLEANS — The fire that killed six-year-old Kyi Odeen Bourne on Feb. 4 broke out inside an apartment constructed illegally on the second floor of 177 Route 6A in downtown Orleans.
The 1935-era home was licensed for two commercial offices and two upstairs apartments. But it had been illegally renovated sometime after early 2017, according to Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering, and two apartments were added. They were never inspected for plumbing, electrical, or building code compliance, according to a Feb. 14 letter from Building Inspector Martin Furtado to the property owner, Peter Eli. The code violations “are too extensive to enumerate here,” Furtado stated in his letter.
Efforts to contact Eli by the Independent were unsuccessful.
Kyi, a kindergartner, was found in a bedroom on the second floor in a five-bedroom unit that had been created illegally. There was a kitchen constructed on the first floor and four bedrooms upstairs, according to the building inspector. Kyi was in a bedroom next to the room where the fire broke out at 8:40 p.m., Deering said.
Kyi’s step-grandfather, Bryan Murray, told the Independent that when the fire was discovered everyone including Kyi ran downstairs. Murray and another man went to fetch water from the downstairs kitchen while the rest headed outdoors. Murray said he thinks Kyi, who had an autism diagnosis, was scared by the noise and the crowd of people outside and ran back to his room without anyone noticing.
The fire, which started with an electric fan malfunction, spread fast, Murray said. He quickly gave up trying to douse it. Once he got outside, the family, which included four adults and two children, realized that the boy was not with them, Murray said.
“After we arrived, we were told pretty quickly that someone was missing,” Deering said. “That heightened our purpose. We were searching through very high heat, in heavy smoke, in an unfamiliar space to save a life.”
Firefighters tried using two different interior stairways and the second-story windows to get to Kyi, Deering said. But by the time they found him, it was too late. Modern house fires are more toxic than they were 30 years ago because of plastics and other chemicals in building materials and furniture, said the chief. The survival time in that kind of smoke and heat would have been two minutes, he said.
The fire was in a common space and blocked one of two exits in that portion of the building. That apartment had two egresses, as required by code, Deering said. But an illegally converted apartment downstairs had only one exit, Furtado reported.
The building had a hard-wired alarm system that notified the fire dept., Deering said. Many of the rooms, however, including the upstairs bedrooms, had no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors, Furtado stated. Smoke detectors would have alerted the occupants sooner, Furtado told the Independent.
Furtado has declared the property uninhabitable until it is renovated and inspected. Orleans Building Commissioner Thomas Evers said he had not yet decided if he will fine Eli.
Because it had more than two residential units, 177 Route 6A should have been inspected every five years, according to state building regulations. The town had it listed as a two-unit building. But, said Furtado, even if officials had known it should be inspected, there is no guarantee that it would have been.
“This department is understaffed and underfunded,” Furtado said. “We cannot even keep up with the inspections we have now for new construction and renovations.”
Deering said he thought about 15 people lived in the four apartments.
“I think the take home message is everyone should be checking their smoke alarms and everyone should have a fire escape plan and practice it — especially with children,” Deering said.
The Orleans Select Board is taking home another message, which had already been on the radar, according to Andrea Reed, the board chair: to adopt a bylaw that would require inspections of all year-round apartments.
“We were working on this before the fire,” said Reed. “And it is on our agenda for our next meeting” on March 1 at 5 p.m.
Last fall, a proposed bylaw requiring registration of short-term rentals in Orleans failed at town meeting by a vote of 182 to 261. The select board is now pursuing required registration of long-term rentals with a basic safety inspection component, Reed said.
“We want to make rentals more visible and safer,” she said. When homes sell, the septic system and smoke detectors must be checked, she noted, and rentals should have the same basic safeguards. She said the board will be drafting a bylaw for the spring town meeting.
The impetus came out of concern for temporary workers from foreign countries, Reed said. They are often subjected to substandard living conditions.
Kyi’s family is from Jamaica, Murray told the Independent. His mother, Shantal Thomas-Johnson, does home care as a certified nursing assistant. Kyi attended kindergarten at Harwich Elementary School, where his eight-year-old sister, Kylie, is in second grade.
Thomas-Johnson and her husband, Rahim Johnson, Murray, Kylie, and other family members displaced by the fire are staying in dormitory-style seasonal worker housing at the Stone Horse Motel in South Harwich. But they must leave by March 15, according to the property manager. Maggi Flanagan of the Homeless Prevention Council is working to find them housing. A Gofundme.com campaign has raised $50,000 to help with funeral and living expenses.
Thomas-Johnson said she wants to stay in Harwich. “That is where my son is buried,” she said. “I am never leaving my son.”