Building Inspectors Among 4 Arrested in Fatal Fire at Adult Care Home

Two officials are accused of filing false reports, and a father and son face arson and manslaughter charges in a blaze that killed two men.

The remnants of the Evergreen Court Home for Adults after a fire that killed a resident and a volunteer firefighter.
Credit...Dakota Santiago for The New York Times

Four people were arrested on Tuesday in connection with a fast-moving fire that destroyed an assisted living home in the New York suburbs in March, killing a resident and a firefighter who died trying to rescue those trapped in the burning building.

Those arrested included a father and son who face manslaughter, arson and other charges, and two local buildings officials who are accused of filing false fire-inspection reports with state regulators, officials said. Arrest warrants have also been issued for two employees of the home, officials said.

The operator of the home, the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley, has previously said that, with Passover approaching, a rabbi used a blowtorch to make the building’s kitchen kosher about an hour and a half before the blaze broke out.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Thomas E. Walsh, the Rockland County district attorney, declined to say whether that process had caused the fire, or whether the father and son charged with arson, Nathaniel and Aaron Sommer, had taken part in it.

Mr. Walsh offered few details about the case beyond the names of those who had been arrested and the charges they faced. He called the arrests a “first step in bringing justice to all involved,” adding that the investigation into the fire was continuing, with a focus on “underlying governmental misfeasance.” He declined to elaborate.

The announcement of the arrests came about a week after law enforcement authorities seized dozens of boxes of government documents from the Spring Valley municipal offices, suggesting that the investigation into the fire had widened, according to The Journal News, in the Lower Hudson Valley.

In the wake of the fire, the Spring Valley buildings department did not respond to the several public records requests by The New York Times related to Evergreen Court. The state Health Department said last week that it was still searching for documents related to the assisted living home that The Times requested in March.

Carl Jager, godfather to the two sons of Jared Lloyd, the volunteer firefighter who died in the blaze, said he had “mixed emotions” about the arrests.

“I was stunned because I didn’t know what was going on,” Mr. Jager said at the news conference on Tuesday. “But thank God for what you’re doing.”

Credit...Associated Press

Oliver Hueston, a 79-year-old resident of the home, was also killed in the fire.

The Sommers were being held in the Rockland County jail after an arraignment in Spring Valley Justice Court, officials said. Devorah Beck, a lawyer representing them, did not respond to a request for comment.

The two officials who were arrested — Wayne Ballard, who runs Spring Valley’s combined public works and buildings departments, and Raymond Canario, a building inspector and local fire chief — face felony charges of falsifying records, officials said.

Mr. Ballard and Mr. Canario were released after appearing in court and were scheduled to return next month, officials said. Neither could be reached for comment. Alan Simon, Spring Valley’s mayor, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Evergreen Court employees being sought on Tuesday were Denise Kerr, the home’s director at the time of the fire, and Manuel Lema. They face charges stemming from their actions at the home before the fire began, officials said.

Lee Vartan, a lawyer for the home’s operator, said that Evergreen Court had “cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.”

“We know from our investigation that the facility’s fire mitigation systems were all operational and functioned as intended the night of the fire,” Mr. Vartan said. “One thing we do not yet know is the extent to which the area’s historic water pressure problems prevented the fire from being contained.”

As devastating as the fire was, officials said at the time that the damage could have been far more severe. Chris Kear, Rockland County’s fire coordinator, called it “one of your worst nightmares.”

“It’s not your typical house fire where there’s five or six residents,” he said. “You’re talking about an adult care facility where you have over 100 people.”

Firefighters were alerted to the blaze at around 1 a.m. on March 23, officials said. As flames spread to the roof, dozens of people fled and emergency services workers and staff members carried some residents to safety before returning to help others evacuate.

Mr. Lloyd, a volunteer with the Spring Valley Fire Department who had 15 years of experience, was trying to rescue a resident from the building’s third floor when he made an emergency “mayday” call, Mr. Kear said. The section of the building he was in soon collapsed.

Evergreen Court’s surviving residents have since been moved to other homes with the help of the state Health Department.

Michael Gold and Ashley Wong contributed reporting.

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