Donna Alexander’s Pall Mall cigarettes might have indirectly led to her death, but a working smoke alarm could have saved her.
Officials investigating Friday’s fatal fire at Alexander’s Oakwood condominium say a 9-volt battery in a smoke alarm found inside the home was disconnected.
“At some unknown time before the fire, the alarm started chirping to let the occupant know the battery was getting low,” Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle said. “Someone disconnected the battery. That’s an all-too-common practice when people get annoyed by the noise.”
Alexander, 53, had only moved into the condo on Township Drive a few days earlier. Officials believe she was awakened in her bed by the intense heat and the sound of a sofa burning in the living room. The heavy smoke throughout the condo was too thick for Alexander to escape, and she was overcome near a back door in the kitchen, succumbing to smoke inhalation.
Alexander’s adult son, Scott Lynn, said Tuesday he is angry that the smoke alarm was not working.
“I know my mom, and I know she would have never taken the battery out, no matter how annoying it was,” Lynn said. As for who did, he said, “we may never know.”
“I think the smoke alarm would have given her a lot more notice, instead of waking up and being overwhelmed with smoke,” Lynn said.
Lynn said his mother had recently moved from Lilburn to live close to him and his family. She was disabled by epilepsy and taking medication, he said.
Alexander was a moderate smoker who bought Pall Mall Filters two packs at a time at the most, Lynn said.
Officials say the cause of the fire is officially undetermined, but they have a strong suspicion the sofa material was ignited by a cigarette.
As a result of state legislation that went into effect in January, tobacco companies that manufacture cigarettes for sale in Georgia must use a new “fire-safe” method that causes cigarettes to go out quicker than they once did when left burning.
The law went into effect in New York in 2004 and led to a nearly 50 percent reduction in smoking-related fire deaths.
Cagle thinks the cigarettes Alexander were smoking may not have been fire-safe, since some of the cigarettes made in 2009 are still being sold in stores.
“If everything was working perfectly — if there was a working smoke alarm, if this was a fire-safe cigarette, I definitely think she would be alive,” he said.
Smoking remains one of the leading causes of fire-related deaths. Since 1994, nine people have died in five Hall County fires where smoking was a suspected cause, including a Gillsville Highway mobile home fire in 1994 that killed two adults and two children.
Fire fatalities are down overall in Georgia, from an average of 300 in the 1980s to about 100 across the state last year. Alexander’s death was the first Hall County fire fatality in more than a year.
More fire safety education, stricter fire codes and better furniture construction methods are among the reasons for fewer fatal fires, Cagle said.
Now officials are pushing for more sprinklers in residential buildings. Newer sprinkler models can be built recessed into ceilings with decorative covers so they don’t stick out in homes.
“We’re very much for residential sprinklers,” said Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell, who is asking the local state legislative delegation to oppose a bill that would prohibit counties from requiring them.
Cagle said in the case of the condo fire, where a small, contained fire burned itself out, a sprinkler likely would have saved a life.
Said Alexander’s son, “I do think it was an avoidable tragedy.”