(Orlin Wagner ~ Associated Press)
ANDERSON, Mo. -- A fire that killed 10 people and injured two dozen more at a southwest Missouri group home for the elderly and mentally ill Monday was being treated as a crime, Gov. Matt Blunt said.
"We're not saying it is definitely a crime scene, but we are treating it as if it is and trying to determine if the fire was set by somebody who had a nefarious motive," he said.
"It is being treated as a suspicious fire," he said, without elaborating about potential evidence.
The blaze, reported about 1 a.m. and brought under control just before sunrise, reduced the privately run Anderson Guest House to a skeleton of cinder blocks and stunned its namesake city, a former railroad town of about 1,800 people tucked in the Ozark hills about 35 miles south of Joplin.
The home had fire alarms but no sprinklers, said assistant fire marshal Greg Carrell.
One of the dead was a worker in the home and the other nine were residents, Blunt said. Authorities had not yet released the names, pending notification of relatives.
Blunt said it was too early to speculate how the fire started but promised a "very thorough investigation."
"I saw the front door blow open with fire," said neighbor Steven Spears, 47, who was watching TV and saw the blaze erupt through security cameras stationed outside his home. "I know most of them [the residents]. I've talked to all of them at one time or another. It still hasn't hit me."
The home is operated by Joplin River of Life Ministries Inc. Owner Robert Dupont issued a statement expressing sadness and saying all displaced residents were being cared for with the help of local agencies.
"This is a very tragic situation that has saddened all of us at Joplin River of Life Ministries," he said.
The dead ranged in age from early 20s to the elderly. Eighteen people were taken to area hospitals and six were treated at the scene. The home had 32 residents and two employees inside when the fire was reported, Highway Patrol spokesman Kent Casey said.
Three people were in serious condition at hospitals in Joplin and Springdale, Ark. All the other survivors who went to area hospitals were either in good or fair condition or had been treated and released.
Officials were refusing to say how the victims died or whether they had warning. Blunt also said authorities were still investigating whether the home's residents were in bed when the fire began.
Asked if two staff members were enough to look after 32 residents, Blunt said that was up to state health officials.
"Again, it was late at night," he said. "That would impact to some degree the amount of care that is necessary."
There also was no information to suggest any of the victims were originally from Anderson, a town of mostly small businesses and manufacturing and whose residents commute roughly an hour south to Wal-Mart headquarters in northwest Arkansas or the businesses that have sprung up around the retailing giant.
Authorities were trying to determine if the blaze was linked to a smaller fire at the facility Saturday morning, Carrell said. No one was injured in the first fire, which was still under investigation when the second blaze began.
Inspectors from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which licenses the facility, found some deficiencies at the home in March but none related to fire safety, agency spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said.
"This is a devastating situation and we express our sympathy to the families of those who were killed or injured in the fire," Gonder said in a news release.
In October 2003, another group home operated by Joplin River of Life Ministries was cited for fire-code violations, including intentionally disabling fire equipment, records show.
The 12-bedroom residential facility, known as Guesthouse II, "failed to repair a malfunctioning fire alarm system for at least two weeks and did not implement a fire watch during that time," according to a copy of the violation provided by the Missourian Coalition for Quality Care, a Jefferson City-based nursing home industry watchdog.
Employees also "placed a pencil in the reset switch to prevent fire alarm activation and failed to reset two pull stations," state investigators found.
The Anderson fire was believed to be the deadliest in Missouri since a blaze in 1979 killed 25 at care home in Farmington. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the nation's deadliest fire in a facility for older adults since 1950 was at the Katie Jane Nursing Home in Warrenton, where 72 people were killed in 1957.
"It's terrible," Casey said. "I have never been involved in a fire in which 10 people lost their lives."
The home is a residential care center licensed by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The facility also has a license from the state Department of Mental Health that allowed mentally ill residents to live at the home and receive treatment elsewhere.
The facility was cited in March for grease buildup in the kitchen, uncovered fluorescent light fixtures, allowing meat to thaw on the kitchen counter instead of in a refrigerator, allowing a resident to take more than the prescribed dose of an inhaler and not requesting criminal background checks as quickly as required by law for new two new employees. All the deficiencies were corrected within three weeks, according to the health department.
In 2003, a patient suffering from dementia and multiple sclerosis, set fire to her bed and burned down the Greenwood Health Center in Hartford, Conn., killing 16 residents. Six months later, in September 2003, a fire killed 15 patients in Nashville, Tenn. Neither nursing home had an automatic sprinkler system, and the fires led to a push for mandatory sprinkler systems in nursing homes.
Recently, the federal agency that oversees the safety of nursing homes asked for comments about a proposal to require all nursing homes to have comprehensive sprinkler systems. The rule would not address group homes like the one in Anderson because such facilities are not subject to the same federal oversight.
Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier in Joplin contributed to this report.