NEW ULM, MINN. - The main house of the bed and breakfast that went up in flames on Saturday, killing six people, was not properly licensed or inspected for paying guests.
The city fire marshal did not conduct his annual fire inspection of the main house in December 2010 because he was told it was not going to be used for lodgers. City records show the owner did not apply for a license to use the main house for guests in 2011.
While it is not clear a fire inspection of the main house would have saved lives, city reports on file in New Ulm show such inspections in the two previous years when the main house was being used for lodgers had uncovered problems that were corrected.
Authorities have not disclosed the cause of the fire. New Ulm police said they have not found any indication arson was involved but say the investigation is not finished. Additional details may be made public Thursday.
Records show the carriage house behind the Bohemian Bed and Breakfast, which contained three guest rooms, received a fire inspection by the city's fire marshal on Dec. 21, 2010, and was licensed by the New Ulm City Council. It did not catch fire and a couple with a young child and a another couple staying in the carriage house were not injured, according to police.
However, the main house was engulfed in fire, killing the owner, Roberta McCrea, and her two daughters, Abby McCrea, 15, and Savannah, 3, and three guests. The owner's fiancé and three other guests staying in the main house escaped.
Ellwood Zabel, the New Ulm fire marshal and a fire and building inspector, said in an interview Wednesday that he only inspected the carriage house because McCrea said "she wasn't going to be using the main house as a bed and breakfast." Records of the carriage house inspection show he found a fire extinguisher that needed to be serviced and that it was fixed the same day.
City records also show that in previous years Zabel had found problems requiring corrective action in the main house, which contained four guest rooms. In 2009, he wrote that the "kitchen fire extinguisher needs checking" and that it needed to be moved from the stove. That was corrected when he visited about 3 1/2 weeks later.
In 2008, he reported the smoke detector in the bed and breakfast entryway needed a new battery, as did two smoke detectors in the carriage house. He also wrote that "all fire extinguishers need to be checked" and that no license could be granted until he had checked to see the corrections were made. Records indicate McCrea fixed the problems.
Asked if an inspection in December might have saved lives, Zabel said, "possibly," but added, "There's no way to tell."
Zabel is also a firefighter, and he noted that when he arrived at the scene in the early morning hours on Saturday, he heard smoke alarms going off. He said he did not know how many smoke detectors were operating, though he said there should have been seven in the main house.
Wilfred Uhing said his mother and father, Andy and Sandy Uhing, who live in rural Hartington, Neb., were vacationing over the July 4 holiday weekend as paying guests at the New Ulm bed and breakfast with old friends Joe and Diane Bergman. The Bergmans had lived in Hartington some 20 years ago, but had moved to Wisconsin or Minnesota. Wilfred Uhing said the couples picked New Ulm because it was about the halfway point for them to meet.
Andy Uhing, 67, and both Bergmans died in the fire, he said. Sandy Uhing, 61, awoke in their room and jumped from the second story. Her son said she suffered smoke and soot inhalation as well as burns to her right hand and a fractured vertebrae in her back. He said his parents did not know McCrea or her fiancé.
The state fire marshal's office has been closed by the state shutdown, but two investigators from the office were activated and sent to New Ulm to investigate the fire, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
Tom Brace, Minnesota Fire Marshal from 1987 to 2003, said Wednesday night, "It is tragic that full information regarding the operation of that bed and breakfast was not shared with the fire inspector." He said it's "pure speculation" whether the inspection would have prevented any deaths. "Who knows whether he would have found something? But he was denied the opportunity to make his inspection by the lack of information given to him by the owner."
Brace, executive director of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, said that in inspections, it is not uncommon to find non-operating smoke detectors or unserviced fire extinguishers. He said both, but especially smoke detectors, are critical to fire safety.
Under state law, the Minnesota Fire Marshal's office inspects all hotels of six units or more every three years, but because the Bohemian Bed and Breakfast had only four guest rooms in one building and three in the other, it did not qualify for a state inspection, Zabel said. A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety concurred.
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