Patten Towers residents won't return to their apartments for six to eight weeks following a 1,500-degree electrical fire in the basement that revealed a list of problems at the troubled downtown landmark.
Officials have determined that it is too dangerous for the building's disabled and elderly residents to retrieve their personal belongings until electricity is restored, and it remains unclear where former residents will sleep after this weekend.
Nancy Young lost her appetite when she learned it could be months before she can return to her home. Wiping away tears, she sat dejected outside the Brainerd Recreation Complex, the emergency shelter for displaced Patten Towers residents.
"I'll get something to eat later, I'm too upset right now," Young said. "I miss my bed."
Joe Conti, director of facilities for Towers owner PK Management, estimated repairs to the 100-year-old building will take six to eight weeks. He said the company will move the 117 remaining residents out of the recreation complex -- where they have been housed since Tuesday at a cost to the Red Cross of $10,000 per day -- to local hotels and apartments.
"We have engineers on the ground now," Conti said.
Those engineers have their work cut out for them. An 11-member team inspected Patten Towers this week, and according to its preliminary investigation report:
• Careless maintenance exposed the structural steel in the basement's concrete columns. High temperatures, like those that occurred during the basement electrical fire, can cause exposed steel to degrade.
• The main electricity control panel had been improperly altered and must be replaced -- a lengthy task that requires a custom-built piece of equipment. The fire destroyed many wires.
• Room ducts are filled with rat feces and dirt, and the building is improperly ventilated.
• Three boilers were installed with no record of a permit; fire equipment has been altered without a permit and many emergency power circuits aren't working.
• Inspectors also found violations concerning emergency lighting, exit signs, the fire alarm system, the hood suppression system, sprinkler system and fire pumps.
The building's two elevators, which are necessary to transport the building's 241 elderly and disabled residents among its 11 floors, are inspected separately by the state and weren't included in Friday's report.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke shook residents' hands Friday and told them the city would take care of them.
"We are working with private building owners to make sure they have a long-term solution for the people at Patten Towers," Berke said. "We've scrapped everything else to work on this."
Berke noted later that the ultimate responsibility for the disaster and its aftermath rests with PK Management and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. City officials deflected questions about why the fire department did not find any of the nearly two pages of problems during near-daily visits to the site.
"If they're looking at a fire in an apartment on the tenth floor, they're not going to say, 'Let's look at the switchgear in the basement,'" said Jeff Cannon, Berke's deputy chief of staff.
Local HUD officials privately said they were told by their superiors not to speak to reporters about the fire. A list of questions submitted to a federal public information officer went unanswered Friday.
HUD, which pays roughly two-thirds of residents' rent with taxpayer funds, has answered no questions from the public about conditions at Patten Towers, and agency officials skipped a news conference after making a brief appearance at a morning planning meeting.
A reporter was asked to leave that planning meeting, which was announced to the media and held at the Salvation Army on Moore Road. The meeting, which also included more than 30 officials from public agencies such as the Chattanooga Housing Authority, the Tennessee Department of Health and Berke's new Department of Youth and Family Development, was closed because of private discussion of victims' medical issues, officials said.
A number of officials from private organizations were allowed to stay at the meeting.
Repeated requests for records from fire officials and city inspectors made during the week were routed through the mayor's office, which released some documents Friday.
PK Management officials were in full damage control mode, contradicting earlier public statements witnessed by reporters that the rent still would be due from displaced residents despite the fact that their building was uninhabitable.
"Let's call it an inadvertent statement and leave it at that," Conti said. "There is no rent."
Joyce Walker, director of community relations for PK Management, said rent would be prorated when residents return to their homes.
Some won't be returning.
Pearly Mae Hackenhull decided Friday she'd had enough and is moving into an apartment on Rossville Boulevard. Over a Salvation Army lunch of meatballs, Mountain Dew, beans, corn and two pieces of toast, she said she was "not gonna pay anymore."
"Patten Towers didn't treat us right," she said.
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...