Response to Cherry Hill center fire is in dispute Records indicate building might have been saved

April 10, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

The multipurpose center on Giles Road in Cherry Hill is presentable from the front, but the inside is damp and burnt and empty.

The library branch is gone for now, replaced by a one-day-a-week bookmobile. The mayor's station has relocated. Several neighborhood residents, who went to the center for tax help, lost income and employment records in the fire.

None of it had to happen, records indicate.

A month after a March 10 fire that caused an estimated $750,000 in damage, interviews with witnesses and a review of police and fire records indicate that authorities missed a chance to extinguish the blaze before serious damage was done. That Sunday night, police and firefighters responded to 2492 Giles Road at 10: 02 p.m. after Cherry Hill residents noticed smoke and fire at the center's northeast corner. But police and fire records show that at 8: 35 p.m., the center's burglar alarm -- operated and monitored by ADT Security Systems -- sounded.

What happened next is in dispute. Theresa Klunk, ADT's operations manager for Baltimore, said the company followed procedure and called 911 at 8: 35. But officers in Southern District said they never got the call. Police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold said the department has no record of a 911 call from ADT at that time.

Whatever happened, no one responded. Two days later, police arrested Thomas Kennedy, 40, who lives two blocks from the center. Authorities said the suspect is accused of breaking into the building, disarming the alarm and setting the fire.

"If the incident had been investigated when ADT received the report of the alarm, the fire would have been in its earliest stages and could have been easily handled," says Fire Capt. Ronald Baker.

ADT, an international company based in New Jersey, provides security for about two dozen buildings for the city, Ms. Klunk said, and city officials report few complaints about service.

But ADT's account of the Cherry Hill fire apparently contains inconsistencies. While the company now says it called 911 that night, a police report says ADT never contacted authorities. Instead, ADT told police that it sent its security officer to check the building, according to the report.

"An officer of ADT Security responded and did not locate any suspicious activity, and therefore did not contact this agency," wrote Southern District police Officer Frank Blucher.

Ms. Klunk said this week that police officers and firefighters must have misunderstood the ADT employees with whom they spoke. Ms. Klunk and Agent Weinhold said that the same burglar alarm sounded earlier in the day, about 2: 30 p.m. At that time, ADT called 911 and officers were dispatched to 2492 Giles Road, where they found nothing unusual, Agent Weinhold said.

The fire has had a profound effect in Cherry Hill, where many residents count on the services at the center. Tenants of the burned building say they do not know when, or if, they will be able to move back.

Residents have been able to find new copies of employment and tax records. For now, the mayor's station, human services hub No. 6 and a legal aid assistance office have relocated across a parking lot at 2490 Giles Road.

The library is looking for a temporary location, and an old wood shop on the ground floor of Arnett S. Brown Middle School at 2700 Seamon Ave. appears a likely site. Beginning this month, a library van is stopping every Monday at Cherry Hill Aquatic Center, 2600 Giles Road, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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