(Current as of 20 Aug 2012)
2. ELECTRICAL PROBLEMS AT THE HIGHLAND HILLS APARTMENTS
Residents of Highland Hills Apartments were having problems with their plug-in appliances. The more fortunate among those residents were those who realized their outlets were overheating. They had their outlets replaced.
The Ledfords were not among the fortunate. The overheating outlet in their apartment was located behind the living room sofa. They therefore did not notice that the outlet was becoming dangerously hot. They did not realize that a circuit breaker would fail to protect them. Soon one of them would be dead, one would be seriously burned, and another other would be on trial for his life.
In Apartment 16-C, above and to the left of the Ledford apartment, the resident had a sewing machine motor that dragged and a nightlight that refused to work. She noticed that the outlet was "very warm." She flipped the circuit breaker to the OFF position and notified the management. The management had the outlet replaced.
A second woman in the complex noticed the outlet in her son's room was hot to the touch. She notified the management. The management had the outlet replaced.
In one of the apartments above the Ledford apartment, a kitchen outlet had been replaced, perhaps by the resident. The outlet is brown. No other outlet revealed in more than 100 photos of the building was any color other than white / ivory / almond.
In each case, replacing the outlet resolved the superficial problem initially attributed to the appliances. The more serious problem, however, remained unresolved. The electrical systems at Highland Hills Apartments were deteriorating and becoming unsafe. Given that overheating outlets result in more than 5000 fires per year, the multiple instances of overheating outlets should have prompted an inspection of all outlets in all units. Instead, the underlying problems were simply ignored until residents became so concerned that they either complained or attempted to correct the problem themselves.
The electrical problems at Highland Hills Apartments were not limited to wall outlets. Photographs taken at the Ledford fire scene reveal the hardwired fire alarm had been installed without an electrical box. This is a clear and egregious code violation. Instead of being secured to an electrical box which was in turn secured to rigid structure, the hardwired smoke alarm was carelessly attached using just two plastic anchors loosely embedded in the gypsum ceiling panel.
Of even greater concern than the missing electrical box is what appears to be a severed electrical cable visible in the space above the ceiling. Given the ragged nature of that exposed cable, and given the equally ragged edge of the hole in that area, it seems as if the electrical cable may have been severed when someone carelessly cut a crude hole in the ceiling to install the smoke detector.
The missing electrical box, the crudely cut hole, and the apparently severed cable suggest that the box was installed during a retrofit program, one that focused on minimizing cost rather than insuring safety.
What is not visible in the photograph is the means by which the smoke detector is connected to the apartment's electrical system. If the smoke detector was merely spliced into a circuit already passing through the overhead, and if that splice was made while working through the small cutout, and if that splice was of similar quality to the rest of the smoke detector installation, then that splice posed another serious fire hazard to the apartment.
Of greater concern than even the overheating outlets (and the crudely installed smoke detector and the exposed wiring in the overhead) is an apparently makeshift repair to one of a circuit breakers photographed after the fire inside the electrical service panel that was supposed to protect the Ledford apartment from electrical hazards.
The circuit breaker reveals startling evidence of an egregiously unsafe repair. Rather than replacing the breaker after a presumed earlier problem, maintenance personnel simply glued plastic strips over the top of it, or so it seems.
A sooted spider web connects the plastic strip and its oozing adhesive. The spider web is evidence that the improperly repaired breaker had been deteriorating for some time. The spider web is evidence also that a cheap, improper repair eventually cost an infant child his life, the parents their son, and the father his freedom.
So noticeable were the problems at Highland Hills Apartments that the residents of Apartment 20C expressed their concern to the police that the fire in the Ledford apartment was ignited by the electrical system. As it turns out, they were correct.