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FOX 13 Investigates: Tenants say they warned landlord of fire hazard before 2022 blaze killed pair

Posted at 4:30 PM, Jun 18, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — A loud banging on the door woke G.T. Esplin.

“I open the door,” Esplin recalled, “and all this wave of heat and smoke, but more it was just heat that hit me.”

“I went right out my back because I had a back exit,” Esplin added.

“The only thing I had was what I had in my pj’s, and that was it.”

It was the early hours of May 30, 2022 — Memorial Day. Rain couldn’t stop the flames that had ignited at the Silverado — a century-old, 13-unit apartment building on 300 East near 200 South in Salt Lake City.

“It was one hell of a night,” Esplin said. “It was just like an inferno.”

Two people died in the fire, including the man suspected of igniting it.

A lawsuit alleges the fire didn’t have to happen —that management was warned about the tenant who smoked while using concentrated oxygen to help him breathe.

“I heard the second, third, fourth fifth, whatever oxygen tanks explosion,” said Devin Isaksen, who lives next door to the Silverado. “Exploding with the 'whoosh, whoosh' noise.”

“The flames were already all the way to the top of the building,” Isaksen added, “and coming towards my building when I looked out my window.”

“People screaming, ‘Fire! Fire! Go out the back!’”

Records from the Salt Lake City fire and police departments say the fire appears to have ignited in the apartment of 71-year-old Peter Elizabeth. He was found dead there with his smoking supplies and oxygen tanks.

The reports say the smoking likely ignited the fire and the concentrated oxygen accelerated it.

Esplin lived at the Silverado for about 2 ½ years before the fire. He knew families there before that.

“It must have been a year before I took up that lease that we were raising concerns,” Esplin said about Elizabeth’s smoking on his balcony while on oxygen. “We talked about how the fact that we have minors living in this building. You've got to do something about this.”

David Richards, a 60-year-old Silverado resident, died a day after the fire. A death certificate says he had burns on 61% of his body.

The injured included Ben Bendoski, the person who banged on Esplin’s door to wake him.

Bendoski spoke to FOX 13 News last year.

“Second-degree burns on my hands,” he said. “I hadn't realized that my face was very burned, and my nose was burned and my eyes."

Three firefighters were also injured.

Richards’ estate as well as Bendoski and Esplin are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They are suing the owners and managers of the Silverado.

The lawsuit claims that the rental contracts prohibited smoking within 25 feet of the building, and a second offense should have led to terminating Elizabeth’s lease.

The suit claims management “didn’t seem to listen” to complaints.

“Their response was,” Esplin said, “‘We'll talk to them. And you know, we'll get it, we'll get it taken care of.’”

In court papers, the Silverado’s owners and management deny receiving warnings. The suit is in state court. Attorneys for the companies declined to comment to FOX 13.

So, what could residents have done?

“Well, one option that the tenants would have had is to apply the Utah Fit Premises Act to serve the notice on the landlord,” said Denise George, a paralegal practitioner at People’s Legal Aid.

The act specifies how renters should address health and safety problems, instructing tenants on how to withhold rent or exit their leases early.

“And the biggest benefit,” George said, “of the Utah Fit Premises Act, in my opinion, is that it can protect you in a lawsuit.”

Esplin says he was worried if he complained too much, management would take it out on him by not renewing his lease or failing to fix repairs he asked for.

“That's a concern for renters,” he said.

But Esplin says the fire he escaped at the Silverado has taught him to be assertive in voicing safety concerns.

“This is a tragedy,” he said, “but I think there was people that could have done something and they didn't do anything.”

The brick exterior of the Silverado remains. Windows and doors are boarded up. A fence surrounds the property.

On Thursday, a set of rose bushes bloomed next to the front steps.

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