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Lack of Fire sprinklers focus of federal death-penalty trial

GREENVILLE -- A federal death penalty trial today in Greenville is again focusing attention on fire sprinkler safety.
Before re-opening as a Comfort Inn in October 2003, the then-15-year-old hotel off Interstate 85 in Greenville underwent a $600,000 face-lift that included new televisions, carpeting and signs.

The hotel's owners left fire sprinklers off their list of improvements.

That decision would prove fatal fewer than nearly four months later, authorities and experts say.

Six guests, including a 15-month-old boy, died Jan. 25, 2004, in an early morning blaze that broke out on the third floor of the five-story hotel on Congaree Road.

It was the state's worst fire fatality at a hotel in recent memory.

Eric Preston Hans, 37, of Taylors, goes on trial this week in federal court in Greenville on a charge of deliberately setting a fire resulting in death.

If convicted, Hans, who has pleaded not guilty, could face the death penalty.

The trial comes on the heels of a June 18 furniture store blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters -- the worst firefighter tragedy in the U.S. United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.

The Sofa Super Store, like the Comfort Inn, didn't have fire sprinklers at the time of the blaze, though the hotel has since installed them. Neither business was required to have sprinklers under existing state law because they were "grandfathered in."

Experts retained by plaintiffs in lawsuits stemming from the Comfort Inn fire contend that sprinklers could have prevented deaths and injuries in that blaze.

"All multistoried hotels and motels should be equipped with automatic sprinklers regardless of whether or not a local law, code or ordinance requires them," former S.C. Fire Marshal Robert Polk wrote in a 2005 court report.

"It is too well known that the failure to have such automatic sprinklers in places creates unreasonable dangers for guests."

On average, there are about 4,600 hotel/motel fires in the U.S. every year -- about 15 percent of which are arsons, Polk's report stated. Citing other research by the National Fire Protection Association, the report said that by the late 1990s, an estimated 90 percent of high-rise hotels and motels nationwide had sprinklers.

In South Carolina, however, only a third of 1,067 hotels and motels have sprinklers and meet the standard the federal government uses for its employees who travel, according to an analysis by The State newspaper published last month.

Tom Sponseller, president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, which represents more than 13,000 food service and lodging businesses, said last week his organization is "very encouraged by discussions" in cities such as Columbia and Charleston about eliminating or reducing fire sprinkler impact or tap fees that can cost businesses tens of thousands of dollars.

Lowering those fees, combined with a proposed state law by Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, that would provide tax credits to businesses that install fire sprinklers, would result in a "lot more commercial businesses adding more sprinklers," Sponseller said.

Thomas in 2004 unsuccessfully pushed for a law requiring sprinklers in all hotels and motels in South Carolina. The bill was fiercely opposed by Charleston hotel operators, who claimed it was too expensive and too difficult to install sprinklers in many of their historic buildings.

Court battles

There are about 2,000 Comfort Inn hotels worldwide, though officials with Maryland-based Choice Hotels International, which sells Comfort Inn franchises, couldn't say last week how many of them have sprinklers.

"We're always trying to go to 100 percent compliance," said corporate spokeswoman Heather Soule.

The company requires smoke and fire detectors, fire extinguishers and emergency exits, she said, though fire sprinklers are only recommended.

Choice Hotels is one of the world's largest hotel companies with more than 5,400 locations under the brand names of Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Clarion, Cambria Suites, MainStay Suites, Suburban Extended Stay Hotels, Econo Lodge and Rodeway Inn, according to its Web site.

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