911 recordings reveal fire victim could not open window to escape
SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (WCSC) - Recordings of the 911 calls made during a Summerville apartment fire last year reveal one of the victims could not open his window to escape.
First responders discovered the bodies of 15-year-old Dhruve Chokshi and his mother, 48-year-old Freni Hazare, in the aftermath of the fire at the Summerville Station apartments on September 29, 2022.
Chokshi was able to call 911 before 3 a.m.
When asked by an operator if he can get to the balcony, Dhruve tells them “I can’t open my window. There’s too much smoke in here. Please.”
He can also be heard pleading for first responders to help his mother first.
The line soon goes quiet.
According to incident reports, Dhruve’s body was discovered holding the remains of a cell phone.
Ten others were injured during the fire, some from jumping from second story balconies or exposure to fire products.
Several firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation as the fast-moving flames and smoke were stoked by the impending hurricane.
“I ran to the right breezeway nearest the bulk of the fire and observed a family of four screaming for help on the first floor. With assistance of Pfc. Gantt, we were able to help [them] out the front window,” another report from an officer reads.
According to state law, all buildings established after 1917 must provide two modes of egress or exits, including fire escapes.
The north star necklace, for which Dhruve was named in his family’s native language, is what helped identify his body according to his father Vatsal Chokshi.
“He was my life actually,” Vatsal said. “Everybody misses him [at] home, you know, there’s not a single day. It’s just, it’s tough for everybody right now.”
Though separated from Hazare, Vatsal says they remained close to help raise Dhruv. He was a straight-A student at Ashley Ridge High School, and planned to pursue computer engineering, like his brother, in college.
The pair lived at the apartments at 1660 Old Trolley road, in part, so Dhruv could attend that school.
Devan Chokshi, Hazare’s older son remembers her as having a “rare” outlook on life.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody so positive about life. One of her favorite phrases was never break a connection,” Devan said.
“Me and my wife take turns. Where she kind of holds me. Otherwise I hold her,” Vatsal said. “We miss him.”
The cause and origin of the fire remain “undetermined.”
Changes after new ownership
Kimberly Hill lived in building B, the same building as the victims.
She and her family were able to get out in time and attempted to wake up as many of their neighbors as possible.
A neighbor credits her daughter with saving his life because she got to his door in time before the smoke became overwhelming.
The image of the fire and the subsequent trauma of losing all of their things, she’s tried hard to forget but it has burned into her memory.
“The entire apartments were just engulfed and the flames were spiraling up into the air because that was the day before the hurricane came,” Hill said. “We saw three people run out that were on fire.”
Hill had lived at the apartments for about five years and moved within the complex after a change in ownership in 2020.
She says maintenance needs were falling through the cracks.
“Everything had been painted over literally everything. Every nut, every nail, everything, the windows. We asked the maintenance to come out and fix it. And again, they marked it as being ‘complete’ but they never came out,” she said. " So my husband and I finally got the window open and sanded it down as much as we possibly could so that we could open and close it.”
Fire code not required to be up to date in older buildings
The apartments were built in the 1970s, before many modern-day regulations were in place for fire alarms and automatic sprinklers that are credited with saving lives.
According to code, fire alarms were not required in every bedroom until 1988. Automatic sprinklers weren’t required in multi-family unit dwellings until 2005.
This came to light months prior to the Summerville Station apartment fire, when a blaze at the Palms apartments in Charleston displaced more than 100 residents.
That complex had been built in the mid-1960s.
Charleston Fire Chief Mike Julazedah explained at the time that sprinklers might have mitigated the effects of the fire.
“But this building would not have been brought up to today’s code unless there was substantial renovation that was done,” Julazedah said in Feb. 2022.
Residents of the Summerville Station apartments report no sprinklers.
The final investigative report also notes that fire alarms were present, but their operation remains “undetermined.”
Hill says she did not hear any fire alarms that morning.
Benjamin Lax, another resident of the building who jumped from his window to escape, says he was awoken by his living room fire alarm but there wasn’t one in his bedroom.
“It just all could have been prevented. We could still be living there,” Hill said. " Every time I ever thought about trying to get another apartment or something my chest would tighten up and I couldn’t breathe. And that’s not okay.”
The property is owned by the Summerville Apartments LLC and PAC, and tax documents list it under “the care of” the Beach Company.
Kelsey Donnelly with the Lou Hammond group responded to inquiries to the Beach company.
Donnelly said that they “cannot engage in speculation about the incident” and the company provides asset management to the owners.
The property manager, Texas-based Lincoln Property Company, has not responded for comment.
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