Cause of fatal fire remains unknown

EVERETT — Fire investigators believe Sunday’s fatal blaze at the Hodges building started near an overloaded electrical outlet, though they have yet to pinpoint an exact cause.

Firefighters who responded to 1804 Hewitt Ave. at 6:40 a.m. arrived to see flames coming from a fourth-floor corner apartment.

They feared that the apartment’s occupant would be unable to escape. She didn’t.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office on Thursday identified her as Wendy A. Pirring, 47, of Everett. Death investigators weren’t yet ready to draw conclusions about how Pirring died.

“Tragedies like this affect us deeply, when we can’t do anything, when we can’t get there,” fire marshal Rick Robinson told the City Council on Wednesday night.

The fire also displaced three dozen people, nearly half of whom were still seeking shelter Thursday through the Snohomish County chapter of the American Red Cross.

The Hodges building, built in 1923, had been subject to condemnation at the time of the fire.

Early findings suggest the fire’s origins are unrelated to the stairwell improvements the city ordered landlord Pete Sikov to make earlier this year.

The flames mostly were contained to the bedroom where firefighters discovered Pirring’s body, city officials said. Closed doors and durable construction materials likely prevented the fire from spreading to the hallway or other apartments, Robinson said.

The power strip near the fire’s origin, however, was plugged into the only electrical outlet in the room, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said. It clearly was overloaded.

Among the items connected there were “a refrigerator, a TV, cable box, a DVD player, a heater, as well as a second power strip plugged into the first power strip,” Pembroke said.

The city still is unable to say whether the power strip or the outlet caused the fire.

“They haven’t definitively ruled out other causes,” Pembroke said.

The city does want to make sure the building’s electrical system is safe.

“Given what we’ve discovered, we’ll be extending the condemnation until the rest of the units have been surveyed by an electrician,” Pembroke said.

International property maintenance code requires at least two separate electrical outlets in each habitable room, she said. The city on Thursday ordered a review to make sure all of the building’s apartment units meet that condition.

City fire officials earlier in the week had ordered a load survey by electricians to determine whether the building’s electrical system has adequate capacity, Pembroke said.

The building must meet that condition before the city deems it safe to occupy.

Smoke alarms do appear to have been adequate and sounded properly during the fire, Robinson said.

Landlord Sikov earlier said he hoped to make required safety improvements so tenants could move back by week’s end. That was before the city raised the electrical concerns. Now, it’s doubtful he’ll meet that timeline.

The local Red Cross chapter hopes to find housing within the next few days for the 17 former Hodges tenants still at its shelter Thursday, Executive Director Chuck Morrison said.

Other organizations assisting the displaced people include Catholic Community Services, the Salvation Army and the pro-bono Northwest Housing Justice Project.

State law requires landlords to help tenants relocate if a city prohibits occupancy because of code violations.

The city has been working with Sikov since 2010 to make fire-safety upgrades at the five-story Hodges building. At the time of the fire, Sikov was “about 85 percent” done, Robinson told the council. Many older buildings have open stairwells. They allow fires to spread quickly and also cut off exit routes.

Under the city’s original condemnation order, Sikov needed to complete the stairwell improvements by today or the tenants would have to move. City fire officials sought the order after taking the safety issues to the city hearing examiner because they felt the improvements weren’t being made fast enough.

The hearing examiner in May examiner ordered the work completed by Aug. 16, but Sikov failed to meet that deadline. The city condemned the building in November.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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