The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 7, 2014

City says New Ulm house in fatal fire not inspected

Owner denies city's accounting

By Josh Moniz
jmoniz@mankatofreepress.com

---- — NEW ULM — The apartment building involved in last week's fatal fire in New Ulm had not had a fire inspection in six years, according to city documents.

New Ulm officials said their records show they attempted to reach the owner once in 2012 and seven times in 2013 to schedule a fire and safety inspection. Landlords must contact the city to set up the inspection dates.

Darcy Moldan, 50, of New Ulm, died of injuries sustained during the Feb. 27 fire at 101 Center St. apartment building. Four people living in the apartment's main floor escaped without injury.

Inspector technician Ellwood Zabel, who conducts fire inspections for the city, said the building inspection department has regularly received the annual registration fee for the building. Zabel said the owner has not contacted the department for an inspection since March 2008.

The apartment building's owner, Patrick Herrley, 32, of Maplewood, denied the city's accounting. He said he was certain he had been inspected since 2008. He said he would dig up through his files and find supporting documentation. However, he did not respond to subsequent requests for further information.

Inspections fairly new

The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the Minnesota Fire Marshal's office and the New Ulm Fire Department. As a result, it is unknown whether an inspection would have prevented the fire.

New Ulm passed a residential rental ordinance in 2010 and began inspections in 2011. The city performed fire and safety inspections prior to 2010. The ordinance mandates that residential apartments must register with the city each year and must be inspected every two years.

New Ulm building inspector Dave Christian said his department forwards information to the city attorney when a residential apartment repeatedly fails to meet compliance. He said no official criteria exist for when they will forward information.

He said the department rarely has compliance issues. He said the department has never forwarded a property that failed to obtain an inspection. He said they typically forward cases involving apartments that repeatedly fail to register with the city.

According to Brown County records, Herrley purchased the apartment building in August 2007. He subsequently obtained a $77,000 mortgage on the property in September 2007.

Christian said the city discovered Herrley's inspections were not up to date last year. He said the department forwarded Herrley's record to the city attorney after the fire. He said he is unsure whether any further action will be taken by the city.

In July 2011, a fire at the Bohemian Bed and Breakfast claimed the lives of the owner and five other people. Zabel did not inspect the building prior to the fire because the owner told him the main building would not be used by guests. The main building was housing guests at the time of the fire.

The fire was caused by unattended candles. City officials said the cause would not have been prevented by an inspection.

Christian said the city has not changed any of its fire inspection policies since the Bohemian fire.

Owner regretful

Herrley told The Free Press he felt horrible about the fatal fire. He said he made safety a top priority with the building, especially because he lived in one of the apartments until September. He said he believes the building had no obvious safety issues prior to the fire.

He said he purchased the building when he obtained a job with MTU Onsite Energy in Mankato. He said he moved when he obtained a new job with Cummins Inc. in the Twin Cities. He said he considered the apartment to be an investment. He said he has never owned any other apartment building.

"It's extremely tragic. I never intended for this to happen. I feel terrible about the situation," Herrley said. "I don't feel like I was being negligent. I don't want it to be perceived that way."

According to the 2008 inspection report, city officials identified problems with combustible material in the exits and a need for more smoke detectors. The report indicates both issues were dealt with in a few weeks.

Herrley did not respond to subsequent calls for further comment.

The Minnesota Fire Marshal's office is expected to release its finding in the coming weeks.