“Our focus is just trying to build a comfortable environment for our seniors temporarily until we can chart a way forward,” said Vanecia Belser Kimbrow, managing member of Feels Like Home Senior Lifestyle Residences. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender

In the aftermath of a Dec. 29 night-time fire that claimed the life of a 72-year-old resident of Feels Like Home Senior Lifestyle Residences, managing member Vanecia Belser Kimbrow Tuesday (Jan. 3) tearfully struggled to explain the emotional toll of the tragedy.

Kimbrow called a news conference in front of the charred ruins of a once-vibrant community at 3393 Kirby Road in the Hickory Hill area.

“We purchased the facility back in June of 2015,” said Kimbrow. “…What started out as a one-room fire, because of the weather … and all the conditions of the deep freeze in the city, came to be a several-alarm fire … It resulted in massive, devastating losses. The most poignant was the loss of life.”

The blaze also sent two residents to the hospital and displaced nearly 50 seniors who called the facility home. 

Kimbrow has met with residents, who are being temporarily housed at Embassy Suites in East Memphis. The focus, she said, is on the community of seniors who have lived together like family. 

Residents expressed that “they want to come home,” she said.

“Our focus is just trying to build a comfortable environment for our seniors temporarily until we can chart a way forward,” Kimbrow said.

The news conference enumerated the results of “a perfect storm of unseasonable weather,” making conditions just right for a fire to thrive and spread.

“Memphis does not handle arctic freezes that last five and six days,” said Kimbrow. “…This building was not equipped for that. We were not equipped to handle water outages…or rolling utility failure when we have systems that rely upon the electricity to be on and working.”

On the day of the fire, all systems were checked. There were fire safety services and plumbers working on the leaks and frozen pipes that burst during the freeze. The water had been restored, but the fire safety system had been “red-tagged.” 

“When a system is red-tagged, you do what is called a fire watch,” said Kimbrow. “This means that staff walks and monitors the property physically. That means every 30 minutes to an hour, we make our rounds on the property.”

The alarm system did not fail. Staff discovered the fire because the alarm system pinpointed the location of the fire, which was initially confined to one room. However, the systems failed, including the sprinklers, Kimbrow explained.

Firefighters couldn’t get their trucks through because the fire access lane that used to come off Winchester has been blocked by the neighboring, larger and wealthier senior community, Kirby Pines LifeCare Community, Kimbrow said.

“We are the least of these, so they get a private driveway, and we lose an emergency access lane.” Kimbrow said. “…We are not making excuses, and we are not blaming anyone. But we want the community to know there was no fault in how we operated…”

The New Tri-State Defender called the public information office of the Memphis Fire Department asking for a statement regarding Kirby Road and the assertion that the fire lane in the back had been closed to provide a private drive for the adjacent Kirby Pines Senior Community. The public information office requested that the inquiry be put in writing in an email, which was promptly sent, but no reply had been received by press time.

When Kimbrow heard there was a fire at the facility, she “never dressed so fast and drove so fast.” 

She recounts getting to the facility in 14 minutes from Collierville. Kimbrow began to cry as she relived the horror of that night – frantically trying to insure everyone was safe.

She began to cry as she reflected on the attempt to save the man who died. The fire started in his unit.

“They tried to get the decedent out of the apartment,” said Kimbrow. “He was a blind individual; blind, but not unable to function … Many people attempted to get him to come out of the unit … but unfortunately, when persons are blind, they depend upon their ears … 

“With the alarms blazing and with people shouting, it was so overwhelming that he just froze, and they couldn’t convince him to just walk out of the room….” She said.

“After a while, it became necessary for those trying to get him out to leave the building … His best friend had to be physically dragged out of the building because he was doing everything he could to go back in and pull his friend out.”

Kimbrow praised the efforts of the Fire Department and the staff to bring everyone to safety. She promised additional updates in the coming days.