SAN ANTONIO -- Three residents at a group home for the mentally disabled are dead after a fire swept through the facility late Wednesday night.
Asst. Fire Chief Robert Mikel said the Amistad Residential Facility, in the 300 block of Norwood, had 13 men inside when the fire started around 10:40 p.m.
Four men had to be rescued from the inside of the four-bedroom home. Mikel said one of the four died at the scene, two more died at the hospital and a 23-year-old man still remains at San Antonio Military Medical Center in critical condition.
Chief Charles Hood said at a news conference on Thursday that the victims were 38, 42 and 65 years old. William Stull, Christopher Breeze and Eddy Lee died of carbon monoxide toxicity.
Hood said the fire started in a downstairs closet of the four-bedroom home and spread to the stairwell, blocking the only escape route for residents sleeping upstairs.
"The fire came up the stairwell, so the only way to get out of there would have been going through the fire, which would have been nearly impossible, or coming out of a window," Hood said.
One of the residents apparently spotted the fire in the downstairs closet and tried to put it out with a garden hose, Hood told reporters. But, the garden hose wasn't able to contain the flames and the fire quickly spread up the stairwell.
The blaze was first reported by a neighbor who saw smoke and flames coming from the second floor.
Hood said there was only one way in and out of the home and that was through the front door. That may have kept some of the men trapped upstairs.
"It's very difficult to get interviews, and we are calling in a specialist from San Antonio PD that's going to help our arson investigators do interviews with people that are mentally challenged," said Hood. "So that is a challenge for us because these are our witnesses."
Firefighters said it appears an electrical issue sparked the blaze, although and official cause has not yet been determined.
The facilities owner, Nancy Murrah says for the last two years the Amistad Residential Facility has been run as a boarding house, her tenants paying with their disability checks. But before that, Amistad was licensed through the state as an assisted-living facility.
"Every time it passed," said Murrah. "It was fine. Everything was fine. I kept it clean, neat. I feed them well. i don't know, I just don't know what happened."
But state records show there were problems. The most recent was in 2010 where inspectors found seven violations at the home - two of those violations were for the fire alarm and sprinkler system, and their maintenance.
"We do know that there were smoke detectors that were found in stable condition upstairs," said Hood. "Not really sure whether they were activated or not."
Amistad never lost its license. Instead, state legislators enacted a law in 2010 allowing certain assisted-living facilities like Amistad to operate without a license and without state oversight. Authorities say it appears construction crews removed a fire escape in the back of the building during renovations, leaving residents with only one way out: the front door blocked by flames.
San Antonio police counselors have been called upon to get information from the residents. Hood said one of the residents told investigators her tried putting the fire out with a garden hose, but never called 911.
Arson investigators and code enforcement officers combed the scorched building on Thursday morning. Firefighters removed smoke detectors from the home following the news conference.
Hood said this is San Antonio's first fatal fire since last year. In 2011, the department saw a total of six fire deaths.