GREENVILLE -- A federal death penalty trial today
in Greenville is again focusing attention on fire
Before re-opening as a Comfort Inn in October 2003,
the then-15-year-old hotel off Interstate 85 in Greenville
underwent a $600,000 face-lift that included new televisions,
carpeting and signs.
The hotel's owners left fire sprinklers off their
list of improvements.
That decision would prove fatal fewer than nearly
four months later, authorities and experts say.
Six guests, including a 15-month-old boy, died Jan.
25, 2004, in an early morning blaze that broke out
on the third floor of the five-story hotel on Congaree
It was the state's worst fire fatality at a hotel
in recent memory.
Eric Preston Hans, 37, of Taylors, goes on trial
this week in federal court in Greenville on a charge
of deliberately setting a fire resulting in death.
If convicted, Hans, who has pleaded not guilty, could
face the death penalty.
The trial comes on the heels of a June 18 furniture
store blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters
-- the worst firefighter tragedy in the U.S. United
States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
in New York City.
The Sofa Super Store, like the Comfort Inn, didn't
have fire sprinklers at the time of the blaze, though
the hotel has since installed them. Neither business
was required to have sprinklers under existing state
law because they were "grandfathered in."
Experts retained by plaintiffs in lawsuits stemming
from the Comfort Inn fire contend that sprinklers
could have prevented deaths and injuries in that blaze.
"All multistoried hotels and motels should be
equipped with automatic sprinklers regardless of whether
or not a local law, code or ordinance requires them,"
former S.C. Fire Marshal Robert Polk wrote in a 2005
"It is too well known that the failure to have
such automatic sprinklers in places creates unreasonable
dangers for guests."
On average, there are about 4,600 hotel/motel fires
in the U.S. every year -- about 15 percent of which
are arsons, Polk's report stated. Citing other research
by the National Fire Protection Association, the report
said that by the late 1990s, an estimated 90 percent
of high-rise hotels and motels nationwide had sprinklers.
In South Carolina, however, only a third of 1,067
hotels and motels have sprinklers and meet the standard
the federal government uses for its employees who
travel, according to an analysis by The State newspaper
published last month.
Tom Sponseller, president of the Hospitality Association
of South Carolina, which represents more than 13,000
food service and lodging businesses, said last week
his organization is "very encouraged by discussions"
in cities such as Columbia and Charleston about eliminating
or reducing fire sprinkler impact or tap fees that
can cost businesses tens of thousands of dollars.
Lowering those fees, combined with a proposed state
law by Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, that would
provide tax credits to businesses that install fire
sprinklers, would result in a "lot more commercial
businesses adding more sprinklers," Sponseller
Thomas in 2004 unsuccessfully pushed for a law requiring
sprinklers in all hotels and motels in South Carolina.
The bill was fiercely opposed by Charleston hotel
operators, who claimed it was too expensive and too
difficult to install sprinklers in many of their historic
There are about 2,000 Comfort Inn hotels worldwide,
though officials with Maryland-based Choice Hotels
International, which sells Comfort Inn franchises,
couldn't say last week how many of them have sprinklers.
"We're always trying to go to 100 percent compliance,"
said corporate spokeswoman Heather Soule.
The company requires smoke and fire detectors, fire
extinguishers and emergency exits, she said, though
fire sprinklers are only recommended.
Choice Hotels is one of the world's largest hotel
companies with more than 5,400 locations under the
brand names of Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality
Inn, Sleep Inn, Clarion, Cambria Suites, MainStay
Suites, Suburban Extended Stay Hotels, Econo Lodge
and Rodeway Inn, according to its Web site.