10 years since deadly nursing home fire in Hartford

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Ten years after the devastating fire at the Greenwood Nursing Home in Hartford, the blaze has helped bring changes to national laws.

However, victims' families are still engaged in a bitter legal battle that's reached the United States Supreme Court.

"There's many firefighters that are still on the job today that responded to this call," said Hartford Fire Capt. James McLaughlin. "It will be etched in their memories forever."

On Feb. 26, 2003 just before 3 a.m., McLaughlin got a call that he will never forget.

"There was a tremendous amount of chatter on the radio and talk about occupied rooms in the nursing home," he said.

That morning, there were 148 people inside the Greenwood Nursing Home and most of them were elderly people, who were sleeping at the time.

"It was dark smoky hallway," McLaughlin said. "You literally couldn't see the hands in front of your face."

McLaughlin said he remembers the fire being contained to one room, but because there were no sprinkler systems, it continued to rage on much longer than it should have.

In this case, it wasn't the flames, but the smoke that proved deadly.

"The significant amount of smoke was really what hindered a lot of progress and which is what took most of the lives," McLaughlin said.

According to fire officials, there were 10 people trapped inside the building, who died that morning, and another six died days later from injuries suffered in the fire. There were 23 people who were injured.

"Many, many more were rescued and are still alive today as a result of the Hartford firefighters that day," McLaughlin said.

Officials said the fire was started by Leslie Andino, who was 23 at the time and believed to be mentally ill. Investigators said she lit her blankets on fire with a lighter.

Andino, who was found mentally unfit to stand trial, is currently at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown.

Even before the smoke cleared and the death toll was finalized, the questions from families started to pour in.

"To their surprise, some of these things, for instance, not having fire alarms in each room and not having sprinklers were surprising to them," said attorney David Siegel, who started the lawsuit against the Lexington Healthcare Group, the owners of the Greenwood Nursing Home.

"We know now that sprinkler systems in a nursing home would've been a contributing factor towards a reduction of life loss and the reduction of smoke and fire spread," McLaughlin said.

The fire started a nationwide change, which required nursing homes to have sprinkler systems in place in order to collect on Medicaid and Medicare.

The Greenwood Nursing Home, which now operates under a new name and new owner, was one of the first to make those changes.

"They took the initiative to retrofit all the rooms and as far as what I've heard, do the right things as far as safety plans and things of that nature," Siegel said.

While Hartford officials can pull some comfort from this fire, there's no solace for the victims or their families.

"It's tragic that 16 people lost their lives no doubt, but this identified a deficiency across the nation and the appropriate adjustments have been made and we hope that what happened will save someone's life in the future," McLaughlin said.

It's been 10 years and there's still no resolution for them. The lawsuit filed on behalf of 13 victims is tied up in the United States Supreme Court over a question over the insurance policy.

"They've lived with this lawsuit for a long time now and hopefully it will get resolved in the near future," Siegel said.

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