Parents of UC students who died in New Year's Day fire plea for code changes

The parents of two University of Cincinnati students who died in a New Year's Day house fire near UC's campus are urging the city to make changes to building and inspection codes.

Rod and Ann Garner, parents of Ellen Garner, along with Anne Kohls, the mother of Chad Kohls, made their plea before Cincinnati city council's Livable Communities Committee.

Both students died from smoke inhalation after blankets caught fire next to an electric space heater on the second floor of a rental house and toxic smoke rose to the third floor where they were.

Standing before the committee, Ann Garner said she would like to see three changes to the city's codes that included:

  • Two means of fire department approved egress from any rental room.
  •  Annual inspection of rental properties
  • Review of code and any changes made be named in honor of Ellen and Chad.

Anne Kohl requested that a certificate of inspection be placed on display at the entrance of any rental property.

On Jan. 1 Chad and Ellen were awakened by fire alarms. The only exit besides the attic stairwell was a window that was blocked by an air conditioning unit that was screwed into the window, noted Ann Garner, Ellen's mother.

That left the students only one way out – the attic stairway.

"He chose the converted attic hallway filled with toxic smoke," Garner told council's Livable Communities Committee. "That is now my nightmare – that image where I do not sleep at night anymore."

Councilmember Laure Quinlivan, who sits on the committee, said she thinks council has "really great potential to increase education around this issue for landlords and renters alike."

She noted that an effort several years ago to certify properties as code-compliant was thwarted by a lack of interest on the part of landlords.

But Quinlivan said she's spoken to UC officials who are interested in trying to revive that program.

Councilman Chris Seelbach assured them that the city will act on these issues.

"You have the 100 percent commitment of this council to make sure we do everything in the future to make sure we don't have mothers and fathers coming here without their sons and daughters," he said.

A WCPO investigation published Feb. 15 also found that overcrowding is another serious safety problem with student rental housing around the university. A city ordinance allows only five unrelated people to live in a single family home unless a property is equipped with additional exits and fire safety equipment. After the fatal fire in January, city investigators found evidence that more than five students were living in the house that burned.

UC student Greg Trybula addressed that issue with council members, saying most students don't think about safety when they're finding a place to live.

"Let's be real," he said. "College students struggle with money. Some landlords identify this issue, and they push to put as many students as they can in cramped quarters that are outdated, especially in an older neighborhood."

Jon Heinrichs, Chad Kohls' friend who lived on the same floor but was not home the night of the fire, said he would like to see changes in honor of his friends.

Heinrichs said he still wonders what may have happened if he were home that evening.

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