Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas 2018

Merry Christmas! And to my non-Christian friends, Happy Holidays! May we behold the spirit of the season, which is the spirit of peace and goodwill.

But first, let me briefly play Scrooge.

Even the most casual observer of current events knows that this nation and planet face crisis. The litany of troubles is long and they are grounded in the opposite of peace and good will: in discord and egoism. To which we could add greed, narcissism, prejudice, anger and hate.

And yet, as my late mother used to say: perhaps it is darkest before dawn. Perhaps the message of hope and redemption that is the story of Jesus’ birth and the foundational story of many other religions and belief systems is the story we should still tell.

As difficult as it sometimes can be reading the headlines, not to mention being in my line of work – journalism and public-affairs TV – in my heart, I still do.

The story of light and hope.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, pupil of Rembrandt.

I see it writ daily in a baby’s eyes, the joy of children and the selfless love of good parents. I see it in teachers and social workers and healthcare professionals and rescue personnel who risk their lives to save a stranger. I see it in artistic creation, in a great book, movie or TV show, in a comedian at the top of her or his game (we could all use a laugh, right?!) I see it in the quiet strength of people who live daily with medical and behavioral-health challenges. In people who toil at thankless jobs in order to support their families and hold the dream. In farmers, and in the clergy, scholars and scientists who dispel darkness and hold humanity high. In the generosity of philanthropists and those who practice Tikkun Olam. In my wife’s smile and her softly held hand. In my children and grandchildren and the colleagues and friends who fill and bless my life.

I see it in red sky at night, and in the birds and the gardens, slumbering now but counting on spring.
So that is my hope on this Christmas – hope.

Hope that these many forces of light, which in number vastly outnumber the dark, will prevail.  
Let me part with a quote from that great American storyteller, Bruce Springsteen, who closed his recent Broadway show this way:

 “Remember that the future is not yet written. So when things look dark, do as my mighty mom would insist. Lace up your dancing shoes and get to work.”

Come 2019, shall we?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Remembering my father, Roger Linwood Miller

Author's Note: I wrote this six years ago, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of my father's death. Like his memory, it has withstood the test of time. I have slightly updated it for today, December 18, 2018, the 16th anniversary (plus one week!) of his death. Read the original here.
Roger L. Miller as a boy, early 1920s.
My Dad and Airplanes
by G. Wayne Miller

I live near an airport. Depending on wind direction and other variables, planes sometimes pass directly over my house as they climb into the sky. If I’m outside, I always look up, marveling at the wonder of flight. I’ve witnessed many amazing developments -- the end of the Cold War, the advent of the digital world, for example -- but except perhaps for space travel, which of course is rooted at Kitty Hawk, none can compare.

I also always think of my father, Roger L. Miller, who died 16 years (and one week) ago today.

Dad was a boy on May 20, 1927, when Charles Lindbergh took off in a single-engine plane from a field near New York City. Thirty-three-and-a-half hours later, he landed in Paris. That boy from a small Massachusetts town who became my father was astounded, like people all over the world. Lindbergh’s pioneering Atlantic crossing inspired him to get into aviation, and he wanted to do big things, maybe captain a plane or even head an airline. But the Great Depression, which forced him from college, diminished that dream. He drove a school bus to pay for trade school, where he became an airplane mechanic, which was his job as a wartime Navy enlisted man and during his entire civilian career. On this modest salary, he and my mother raised a family, sacrificing material things they surely desired.

My father was a smart and gentle man, not prone to harsh judgment, fond of a joke, a lover of newspapers and gardening and birds, chickadees especially. He was robust until a stroke in his 80s sent him to a nursing home, but I never heard him complain during those final, decrepit years. The last time I saw him conscious, he was reading his beloved Boston Globe, his old reading glasses uneven on his nose, from a hospital bed. The morning sun was shining through the window and for a moment, I held the unrealistic hope that he would make it through this latest distress. He died four days later, quietly, I am told. I was not there.

Like others who have lost loved ones, there are conversations I never had with my Dad that I probably should have. But near the end, we did say we loved each other, which was rare (he was, after all, a Yankee). I smoothed his brow and kissed him goodbye.

So on this 16th anniversary, I have no deep regrets. But I do have two impossible wishes.

My first is that Dad could have heard my eulogy, which I began writing that morning by his hospital bed. It spoke of quiet wisdom he imparted to his children, and of the respect and affection family and others held for him. In his modest way, he would have liked to hear it, I bet, for such praise was scarce when he was alive. But that is not how the story goes. We die and leave only memories, a strictly one-way experience. 

My second wish would be to tell Dad how his only son has fared in the last 16 years. I know he would have empathy for some bad times I went through and be proud that I made it. He would be happy that I found a woman I love, Yolanda, my wife now for four years and my best friend for more than a decade: someone, like him, who loves gardening and birds. He would be pleased that my three wonderful children, Rachel, Katy and Cal, are making their way in the world; and that he now has three great-granddaughters, Bella, Vivvie and Liv, wonderful girls all. In his humble way, he would be honored to know how frequently I, my sister Mary Lynne and my children remember and miss him. He would be saddened to learn that my other sister, his younger daughter, Lynda, died in 2015. But that is not how the story goes, either. We send thoughts to the dead, but the experience is one-way. We treasure photographs, but they do not speak.

Lately, I have been poring through boxes of black-and-white prints handed down from Dad’s side of my family. I am lucky to have them, more so that they were taken in the pre-digital age -- for I can touch them, as the people captured in them surely themselves did so long ago. I can imagine what they might say, if in fact they could speak.

Some of the scenes are unfamiliar to me: sailboats on a bay, a stream in winter, a couple posing on a hill, the woman dressed in fur-trimmed coat. But I recognize the house, which my grandfather, for whom I am named, built with his farmer’s hands; the coal stove that still heated the kitchen when I visited as a child; the birdhouses and flower gardens, which my sweet grandmother lovingly tended. I recognize my father, my uncle and my aunts, just children then in the 1920s. I peer at Dad in these portraits (he seems always to be smiling!), and the resemblance to photos of me at that age is startling, though I suppose it should not be.

A plane will fly over my house today, I am certain. When it does, I will go outside and think of young Dad, amazed that someone had taken the controls of an airplane in America and stepped out in France. A boy with a smile, his life all ahead of him.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Wolf Hill: An Essay About a Boy

I periodically repost some of my favorite essays. Here's one, set in autumn, my favorite season. I wrote this in October 1997, on a break from finishing my fourth book, Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie and the Companies That Make Them. Cal is a young adult today, living in Japan.


An Essay About a Boy

We avoid the woods in summer. We don't like bugs, the ticks and mosquitoes especially, and anyway, we're drawn to the beach at Wallum Lake, which is just up the road. But early October finds us eager for the first killing frost. It came this year at the customary time, when the sugar maples are at their peak and the oaks are only beginning to turn. The temperature at dawn read 29 or 30 degrees, depending on the angle the thermometer was viewed. I figured if any of my city friends asked, I'd say 29.

By late afternoon, it had warmed to almost 50. The sky was cloudless and the breeze had shifted to the south. I put on my boots and vest and helped Cal, who is almost three, on with his. Our vests have large pockets, very important for walks in the woods. We went through the backyard and onto the cart path that ascends Wolf Hill, a fanciful name in the nineties, even for a rural town like ours. Cal's first priority was equipping himself with a stick. He found one about two feet long, and another slightly larger, which he gave me. ``Little boys need big sticks,'' he observed. I wholeheartedly agreed.

Young Calvin with his proud dad.
Many years ago, when a farmhouse graced the top of Wolf Hill, the path could accommodate vehicles; one, a bus, ended its last journey up there and its rotting remains continue to be a source of wonderment to all who happen upon it. Every year the mountain laurel and pine claim more of the path, and this year was no exception, but there was still plenty of room -- more than sufficient, I informed Cal, for another good flying- saucer run this winter. Cal insisted on taking the lead and, unlike our last walk, in April, he refused assistance getting past deadfalls. He went under, or around, and then stopped to reveal the appropriate route to me. ``Dad, come on over here,'' he said at one point, ``that's a safe place to get by.''

We climbed, past the inevitable stone walls, still remarkably intact, if mostly overgrown. The air seemed fresher as we continued, the light through the foliage stronger, and soon enough we'd reached the peak. Only a cellar hole is left of the farmhouse, destroyed some thirty years ago in a fire of suspicious origin. Rusting machinery, barrels and bedframes are strewn about, and the woods are slowly claiming them, too. We marveled together at a sight as strange as grape vines entwined around a bedframe, and I tried explaining how a house not unlike our own had been reduced to ruin, but I don't believe I succeeded, nor did I really try. I steered Cal's attention to the only grass on Wolf Hill, a small, sunlit remnant of lawn. We picked wildflowers, the last of the season. I did not know the species. They had thirteen petals and came in two shades: lavendar and white. The frost had not touched them. Cal was more interested in mushrooms. He'd been keen on mushrooms since our last swim at Wallum Lake, when he found ones as big as my hand that had materialized overnight beneath a picnic bench. He also gathered acorns, which he proposed to feed to squirrels, a word he still had difficulty pronouncing.

From the cellar hole, we descended to the quarry. I cautioned Cal not to run, but he explained that he was not -- this was skipping. I wanted to carry him or at least hold his hand; instead, I took a breath and was silent on the matter. The quarry has not been worked since the 1800s, but if you look around town, you will see many foundations made of its imperfect granite. Our own front steps, I am sure, came from here. Water has long filled where men once labored, of course, and a century's worth of sediment covers the bottom, making it impossible to gauge true depth (although we have tried, with our sticks). When Cal is a little older, I will tell him -- as I did his sisters -- spooky stories of the goings-on here when the moon is full. For now, we concern ourselves with water. It had not rained in over a week, and the stream that empties the quarry was dry. Our April walk was during a nor'easter, and we got soaked playing in the waterfall, but it was gone now, too. Cal was worried it would never return, but I reassured him it would, with the next steady downpour.

The shadows were lengthening and the temperature was edging down. An inventory of our pockets disclosed sticks, pebbles, acorns, flowers, mushrooms and a bright yellow leaf, which Cal had selected for his mom. We left the quarry and made our way back to the cart path through a stand of towering Balsam firs, unlike any other on Wolf Hill. When the girls were small, long before Cal was born, we found this place. It resembles a den, and the forest floor is softly carpeted and often dotted with toadstools -- certainly a spot, I allowed, where elves dance under the starry sky. Honest? Rachel and Katy were wide-eyed. There was only one way to know for sure, I said: Some fine summer night, we would have to camp out here, being careful to stay awake until midnight. We never did. Rachel is in high school now, and Katy, four years younger, is sneaking looks at Seventeen. Cal listened with great interest at the prospect of seeing elves. He was tired, and as I carried him home, I promised we'd camp out next summer, bugs and all. I intend to ask Rachel and Katy if they'd care to join us.

Copyright © 1997 G. Wayne Miller

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Four decades: Children of Poverty, a five-part series

Why this post? Marking four decades in journalism, and you can read about that here. 

From August 28, 2018, through August 27, 2019, I will periodically post -- in no particular order and with no set number in mind (think: whimsy) -- some of my stories during my four decades as a journalist at three newspapers: The Transcript, in North Adams, Mass, now defunct; The Cape Cod Times, in Hyannis, Mass.; and since 1981 at The Providence Journal.

Today: Opening day of "Children of Poverty," a five-part series published in 1989, as I continued to explore social justice and disparities, issues about which I continue to write today.

CHILDREN of POVERTY: Behind from the start. Poor children, a vicious circle

Publication Date: November 26, 1989  Page: A-01  Section: NEWS  Edition: ALL

Part one of five parts.

Related stories on pages A-08, A-10 and A-11.

May 25, 1989.

Terrance Andre Smith has come into the world. He's a beautiful baby, healthy and normal, all dimples and flawless ebony skin. The joy of motherhood lights up Cheryl Smith as she cradles her third son, the very image of her, in their room at Providence's Women & Infants Hospital.

It is a universal moment.

Poignant, especially in light of the road that brought them here.

Since her own birth 28 years ago, the odds have been stacked against Cheryl. Given up by a sickly mother, she spent her childhood being shuffled from foster care to orphanage to reform school. She never met her dad. The one constant has been poverty. Cheryl Smith has hardly ever had a dollar to call her own.

Even against that background, this pregnancy defied the odds. As bad as things had always been for her, in 1988 they'd gotten worse.

In May of that year, her first four children were taken by the state, in large part because the Smiths - again - had found themselves homeless. Before Cheryl could find another apartment, a precondition of getting her children back, she was arrested on bogus car-theft charges. Unable to raise $250 for bail, she spent 16 days in jail, until a judge threw the case out.

It was mid-August. For a spell, she lived with Terrance's father, an occasional carnival worker who drifts in and out of her life, in an abandoned South Providence building that its 20 or so residents nicknamed The Dewdrop Inn. When that burned, taking with it the few items of clothing Cheryl owned, she moved into a 1977 AMC Matador that had no brakes but a good heater.

In November, when even a good heater couldn't ward off approaching winter, a doctor confirmed it: Cheryl was going to be a mother again.

By the first of the year, circumstances had improved, however marginally. Using donations begged from charitable organizations, she scraped together enough cash for an apartment. But the pleasure of having her own place, however ramshackle, was soon overshadowed by the realities of keeping it. Her rent - $400 a month, utilities not included - was $94 more than her monthly welfare payments.

Unable to afford oil, she heated with the three working burners of a gas stove. She had no refrigerator, no car, no money for baby clothes or crib. Using the bathroom after dark presented this choice: leaving the door open so light from the kitchen fluorescent fixture reached inside, or unscrewing the apartment's lone bulb from a living room lamp and carrying it in.

Medically, Cheryl was on shaky ground. A cigarette smoker and cocaine user who suffers from high blood pressure, her diet was too heavy on carbohydrates, too sparse on fresh vegetables and fruits. Anemia was diagnosed at a prenatal clinic for the poor, but it was weeks before she got a corrective prescription filled.

Somehow, she and Terrance made it.

As she smothers her newborn with kisses, as she whispers into his perfect little ears, Cheryl can be forgiven a burst of pride at what she has created.

"All I went through with him," she says. "In the streets, out of the streets, up, down . . . this baby's already been through everything. And to have him come healthy - hallelujah]"

An optimistic moment.

It won't last. Like an estimated 3,000 Rhode Islanders born every year - 1 in 4 - and hundreds of thousands nationwide, Cheryl Smith's baby will not have the same chances for a healthy, productive life as a baby born into a more affluent community.

Terrance was born poor.

In a couple of days, Cheryl plans to take him home to her apartment on Wendell Street, in Providence's West End. Like many poor neighborhoods, the culture is one where hope often is an illusion, frustration and despair the emotional landscape, drugs the temptation that doesn't go away.

Compared to, say, a typical Barrington baby, Terrance - not only poor, but black - is more likely to:

* Be homeless.

* Drop out of school.

* Fall victim to violent crime.

* Wind up behind bars.

* Contract AIDS.

* Remain underskilled and unemployed.

* Spend a lifetime in poverty.

* Father children out of wedlock, a situation likely to begin the cycle anew.

That's if Terrance survives childhood intact.

Chances are he - and the 12.6 million, or 1 in 5, American children who also are poor - won't. Because of his economic status, before Terrance reaches 18 he is more likely than his middle-class contemporary to be burned, poisoned, injured or abused. His overall health is more likely to be bad. His female counterparts are more likely to become pregnant while unmarried. Many of both sexes will give in to the instant gratification of crack and other drugs, modern America's scourge.

"A child who doesn't have the memory of a respectable past has no basis for creating a future," Lisbeth B. Schorr, lecturer in social medicine and health policy at Harvard Medical School, says in an interview. Her prescription for change, Within Our Reach, published last year, has been praised by politicians and social scientists alike.

"The Labor Department finds the fastest growing occupational category in this country is that of prison guard," Schorr says.

Unless the situation is turned around, she argues, "we're going to keep investing more in prisons, in building walls between the haves and the have-nots. We're going to have a more polarized society. We're going to have more violence. We're going to have more alienation.

"Absolutely, the future of the country is at stake."

The last thing Cheryl Smith had in mind was another child.

Neither did Cheryl's boyfriend expect a baby, although he hadn't given it much thought one way or the other. Terrance Cannon, 31 - known throughout South Providence as Tank, a nickname that aptly describes his physique - isn't in the habit of looking much past tomorrow.

When a doctor at South Providence's St. Joseph Hospital told Cheryl the bleeding she'd been experiencing was related to pregnancy, she was incredulous. Her next reaction was to get plastered. Sober, she considered abortion.

"If I'd had the money when I found out I was pregnant . . ."

She doesn't finish. "I couldn't have gone through with it," she explains. "I would have had to live with that guilt the rest of my life."

Cheryl pauses. She is not religious, not in the sense of organized worship, but she believes in God, even if she sometimes wonders where He is.

"In the beginning, I wanted this baby dead, dead, dead. But the Good Lord didn't want it to happen. Obviously it was meant to be for some reason. I thought: 'That'll be one more person in the world who will love me - and who I can love. Maybe this baby can teach me something.' "

Poor children have always been with us.

But not, since 1965, in such numbers.

According to the Census Bureau, 27.3 percent of U.S. children (under 18 years old) were poor in 1959, the first year such data was kept. By 1969, when most of former President Johnson's Great Society program was on line, the percentage had been virtually halved, to 14 percent.

Then the climb began, reaching 22.3 percent in 1983 before leveling off in the 20 percent range. Today, 12.6 million U.S. children, or 19.7 percent, live in officially defined poverty - which, for a family of four, was an annual income of $12,091 in 1988, the latest year for which poverty data is available. Since 1975, the poverty rate for children has been higher than for any other age group in the U.S.

Why the increase?

Demographers, economists and politicians cite a variety of factors.

Some point to reduced government aid to the poor, particularly in housing. Some look to changing morals - a legacy of the free-spirited '60s - and to an explosion of single-parent families. Others fault education. Still others see a fundamental shift in the economy from traditional manufacturing to high-tech industries requiring job skills more sophisticated than threading a spindle. Noting that 46 percent of all black children are poor - compared to 16 percent of white youngsters - many blame discrimination.

Yet another explanation is the growing disparity between the poorest and richest families. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group, the wealthiest fifth of the population last year received 44 percent of the nation's total family income - the biggest share ever - while the poorest fifth got less than 5 percent, the lowest percentage in 34 years.

Those traveling the moral high road are alarmed. So are captains of industry, for whom children are tomorrow's labor force.

Their concern is spelled out in the 1987 report, Children of Need, published by the Committee for Economic Development, an economic research group whose board of trustees includes officers from such corporate giants as Exxon, BankAmerica, General Motors and Sears. The report warned that a vital part of America - its economy - is endangered when so many young people are so poor, undereducated and unskilled.

"This nation cannot continue to compete and prosper in the global arena when more than one-fifth of our children live in poverty and a third grow up in ignorance," the report said.

"And if the nation cannot compete, it cannot lead. If we continue to squander the talents of millions of our children, America will become a nation of limited human potential. It would be tragic if we allow this to happen. America must become a land of opportunity - for every child."

Owen B. Butler, retired chairman of Procter & Gamble Co., was on the task force; he has since become CED's chairman. For the last two years, he has been on the lecture circuit, arguing for greater investment in early intervention, targeting children before they start school.

"The economic argument is simple," Butler says. "These children are going to be with us for their lifetimes - although, tragically, some of their lifetimes will be brief. They're going to be in our society as either producers or nonproducers. If they are producers, they will contribute to society. If they're nonproducers, they will detract from it."

There is no typical poor kid.

They live in cities and suburbs, the Grain Belt and industrialized Northeast, in housing projects and tumbledown trailers. Nationally, 7.5 million poor children are white or Hispanic, roughly 4.4 million are black. Some live with both mom and dad; but a greater number, nearly 7 million, live with mom alone.

Millions are the children of welfare recipients. Millions more are offspring of the working poor - people with jobs who find adequate housing, health care and proper nutrition a daily battle. With incomes just high enough to disqualify them for most government benefits, they live from paycheck to paycheck.

"One has to be absolutely clear that we're talking here in probabilities," says Harvard's Schorr. "There are kids from this kind of background who become Nobel Prize winners. It's just that the odds are they're going to have disastrous outcomes.

"These kids have no reason to believe that their effort is going to make a difference. If they're called upon to postpone gratificaton - whether it's by staying in school or saying no to drugs or by saying no to sex, they have no reason to do that. Because both from their own experience and in the lives around them, there is no evidence that hard work pays off."

For Cheryl, the only thing worse than taking her baby home to the ghetto would be not taking him home at all.

Losing her other children already was exacting a heavy emotional toll. With the state restricting visits to two hours every week or so, mother and children were becoming strangers to one another.

"The baby was really all I had," she'd often thought during the months she was pregnant. "I didn't have my other kids, I didn't have nothing. Just the baby inside me. That's what it really boiled down to."

Early the afternoon of Friday, May 26, as Cheryl is giving Terrance his bottle and thinking about the Memorial Day weekend, a social worker from the Women & Infants staff drops by. In a few minutes Cheryl is going to have a visitor, the worker explains. Someone - the social worker won't say who - has dialed the state's child-abuse hotline with a tip, something about Cheryl and cocaine. DCF has been looking into the situation.

The first step was running Cheryl's name through the agency's Child Abuse and Neglect Tracking System computer, which keeps files of all complaints, whether the allegations are substantiated or not by field investigation. Cheryl's name was there. More computer work and a synopsis of the Smith family history came up on a screen.

The DCF investigator - trained, like her colleagues, in quasi-police work - contacted South Providence's St. Joseph Hospital, where Cheryl received regular prenatal care. Sure enough, tests of Cheryl's urine taken during visits to the prenatal clinic had, on six of eight occasions, disclosed traces of cocaine.

The desire for a healthy baby had driven Cheryl to the St. Joseph prenatal clinic. But she was willing to go to almost any length to avoid further trouble with DCF, an agency she blames for many of her problems. Cheryl had chosen to deliver at Women & Infants in the hope that her St. Joseph records would not follow her.

Carrying a clipboard, Martha Donnelly, the investigator, closes the door.

Was Cheryl aware of the results from St. Joseph?

Yes, Cheryl says.

Did she know cocaine could be harmful to the unborn?

What do you take me for, an idiot? Cheryl snaps. Of course I knew. Didn't your snooping show I've been getting drug counseling this spring? Didn't that show I had a problem? But my cocaine use has been sporadic, a toke of a cocaine-sprinkled joint every now and then. Never much. And never crack.

Cocaine was very much in the news at this time.

"The cocaine epidemic that has swept this state over the past five years has outpaced the ability of various human service systems to cope with its effects on children and their families," said child advocate Laureen D'Ambra. Her report, released the day before Terrance Smith was born, was prompted by the death of a baby who'd been discharged from Memorial Hospital, Pawtucket, despite a test showing cocaine in his body. Less than two months later, the baby was dead of starvation.

Another story - it made Page One the week after Terrance Smith was born - reported the state medical examiner's finding that cocaine ingestion had killed a 6-week-old Central Falls baby.

The door opens and Donnelly disappears.

Before talking to Cheryl, Donnelly had been in touch with Terrance's pediatrician. No, the cocaine test results on the baby weren't back yet. But the doctor "had noticed some jitteriness in the baby's condition." A jittery baby can mean nothing. It can be a sign of cocaine withdrawal.

Based on "jitteriness" and Cheryl's positive tests, the investigator and her superiors decide Terrance should be kept at the hospital on a 72-hour hold - an order a doctor can unilaterally, and without appeal, enter. The hold will give DCF the chance to take Cheryl to court. Then it will be up to a judge.

"I got all sorts of things going through my heart, my brain," Cheryl says, cuddling her baby.

Her room is shiny and clean, but there is not a single card, no flowers or gifts, no newspapers or magazines to read. There is no money - not even spare change - in her purse, and no chance of any for four days, when the welfare check, all of it already owed to the electric company, arrives. Visitors might have cheered her up, but there have been few.

Tank was by her side for a few minutes during labor, but once the baby's head started to appear, he mumbled something about hospitals making him sick and took off. He hasn't been back. Word is he's been seen at a bar, but there's no way of confirming. Yesterday, Cheryl called her apartment. A strange woman answered, said she hadn't seen Tank, then hung up. When Cheryl called back, the phone was off the hook. It's been off ever since.

"Wish I had a gun," Cheryl says. "Wish I had a bomb. Wish I had a Mack truck. Wish, wish, wish]"

She goes to the window, looks out over the ruins of South Providence, her turf. Anger darkens her face.

"I feel like a caged animal. I was free for awhile and now I'm back in. I got nothing now. Nothing. A piece of paper and a pen - and wham] My baby's history."

Tears forming, she hugs Terrance tight.

"At least I got to name him."

* * *


I met Cheryl Smith one January morning at Amos House, the South Providence haven that feeds and shelters the poor. I was doing a story on how the haves and have-nots had fared during Ronald Reagan's presidency. I also was keeping an eye out for people I might spotlight for a series about the lives of Rhode Island's poorest children.

"There's no way poverty should be this doggone bad," Cheryl said when I asked her about Reagan's eight years.

So began a relationship that was destined to take photographer Frieda Squires and me on a nearly year-long journey with Cheryl and her five children. Theirs is in many ways a grim existence. But it is not entirely bleak, as Cheryl, with her sharp tongue and quick wit, showed me.

On that very first morning, I told Cheryl that I was not interested in a quick interview that I would gussy up with a fancy phrase and an alarming statistic and slap into the paper. Nothing so easy. It would mean spending hundreds of hours with her and her children, going into their homes, getting to know their friends, relatives and neighbors. It would mean a slew of personal questions. It would mean a lot of photographing and prying and record-combing, not necessarily a pleasant experience.

Cheryl said yes.

To my surprise, so did almost everyone else we talked to over the next several months.

From the start, I was impressed with Cheryl's candor and intelligence. I knew, long before our reporting was done, that here was a person who deserved better, as did her children. I knew instinctively that she was willing to share so much because she felt her story, by no means unique, was important to tell.

- Wayne Miller

* * *


In January, reporter G. Wayne Miller and photographer Frieda Squires began an investigation into the plight of Rhode Island's poor children. They went to schools, workplaces, welfare offices, shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, health clinics, day-care centers. They examined police, court, state and medical records. They spent hundreds of hours in the inner city, in substandard housing and on the streets.

They report their findings in a five-part series beginning today and continuing daily in the Journal-Bulletin through Thursday.

Miller, 35, a graduate of Harvard College, has been with the Journal-Bulletin since 1981. His previous series were about the graying of America and deinstitutionalization, the policy of moving mentally disabled people from hospitals to the community. Miller is the father of two young girls.

Squires, 41, attended East Central University in Oklahoma and served in the Navy. She joined the Journal-Bulletin full time in 1985. Her photography has been recognized by the National Press Photographers Association, among other groups. Squires is the mother of two teenage boys.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Four decades: Fatal Foam

Why this post? Marking four decades in journalism, and you can read about that here. 

From August 28, 2018, through August 27, 2019, I will periodically post -- in no particular order and with no set number in mind (think: whimsy) -- some of my stories during my four decades as a journalist at three newspapers: The Transcript, in North Adams, Mass, now defunct; The Cape Cod Times, in Hyannis, Mass.; and since 1981 at The Providence Journal.

First up: "Fatal Foam," a four-part series co-written with the late Pete Lord, a dear friend, that was part of The Providence Journal's coverage of the deadly 2003 Station Fire that killed 100. The Journal's coverage was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

[For the 12-part tenth-anniversary Journal series, Feb. 10 - Feb. 21, 2013, click here.]

FATAL FOAM - PART ONE: It's just about everywhere.
Publication Date: September 28, 2003  Page: A-01  Section: News  Edition: All 

This is the first of a four-part series on the dangers of polyurethane foam in our homes.

FUELED by polyurethane foam, a substance so flammable that firefighters compare it to gasoline, The Station nightclub fire spread with stunning speed. Superheated air and poison gases filled the club and combustion sucked the oxygen away. Within minutes, 100 people were dead or dying, and more than 200 were hurt.

The magnitude of that toll horrified Americans. But the material that ignited during the West Warwick disaster is behind a larger, though far less-publicized, tragedy: the deaths of hundreds of people around the country every year in home fires involving foam. Some of the victims are elderly. Some are children. Some go to sleep and never wake up.

Many would be alive now if the federal government had done its job, or if industry had done all it could.

For three decades, most upholstered furniture and mattresses sold in America have contained flexible polyurethane foam, the plastic material that was used as soundproofing around The Station nightclub stage. It's found in couches, love seats, chairs, recliners, mattresses, mattress pads and mattress toppers, pillows, carpet cushioning and many other places. More than 2 billion pounds of foam enters the U.S. market every year.

Foam is comfortable and comparatively cheap - and once ignited, it can be lethal. Mattress, bedding and upholstered furniture fires killed almost 30,000 Americans from 1980 to 1998, the latest year for which National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data are available. Another 95,655 people were injured.

From 1980 to 1998, mattress and bedding fires killed 12,712 Americans, according to the NFPA - 10 times more than all those killed by tornadoes and hurricanes combined. During the period, mattress and bedding fires injured almost 56,000 people, some horribly and for life. Direct property damage (which includes damage to a building and its contents, but not such costs as medical care or relocation) totaled $5.5 billion, as a fire starting in a bed often engulfs a bedroom and then damages or destroys more rooms or an entire house.

During the same period, upholstered furniture fires killed 17,108 and injured almost 40,000 others. Direct property damage surpassed $4.3 billion.

These numbers could have been lower - dramatically lower, advocates say.

For years, the technology has existed to make household foam harder to ignite: chemical flame retardants can be used, and fabric flame barriers can be built into beds and upholstered furniture to shield the foam within from outside ignition. England requires such protective technology, and it is credited with saving hundreds of lives since the 1988 introduction of tough flammability standards, according to a June 2000 British government study.

America has no such tough national regulations.

U.S. manufacturers of mattresses and upholstered furniture must meet only lesser national flammability standards - and for the furniture makers, the standards are voluntary, drawn up by the makers themselves.

There is a federal agency with the power to require safer products: by law, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is charged with regulating the flammability of mattresses and furniture. But despite studies and the calls of firefighters and fire-safety advocates, the CPSC for three decades has failed to adopt stricter regulations.

"Different folks have different ideas about what to do - and the regulatory process is, to say the least, quite burdensome," CPSC chairman Hal Stratton said in an interview.

Meanwhile, the death toll mounts.

"I am shocked that leaders charged with our protection would allow kids to die while they dallied for three decades," said Whitney A. Davis, personal injury lawyer and director of the California-based Children's Coalition for Fire Safe Mattresses.

"I have no way to explain to the burned children in my group, whom I have flown around the country promising that what they are doing will help save others, that the U.S.A. has placed grownups in power that have proven that the kids' skin was given in vain."

IN ITS ESSENTIAL features, the fire that killed four in Westerly two summers ago is typical of what can happen at home.

In the early morning of July 17, 2002, Robert Ingram, his two young daughters, his stepson, and the stepson's girlfriend were sleeping in bedrooms in their Colonial-style house; family friend Jessica Sjostedt and her 2-year-old daughter were asleep on a living room couch. A quilt for kittens was next to the couch, and a love seat was next to the quilt. The furniture contained flexible polyurethane foam, investigators believe.

Sometime in the early hours, a fire began at the base of the couch. Investigators would be unable to definitively determine the cause of the fire, but they would theorize that kittens may have chewed through an electric lamp cord, shorting it and creating the heat for ignition.

Flames licked at the couch.

Shortly before 6 a.m., the fire woke Sjostedt. She grabbed her baby and began to scream.

Her panic woke Ingram's stepson, Neil Rosenberg, 23, who had been sleeping in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Rosenberg ran down and managed to get Ingram, 68, who is wheelchair-bound, safely out of his first-floor bedroom. Sjostedt found a portable phone and followed them with her baby outside.

By now, the couch was engulfed, and the love seat was catching.

Lethal smoke filled the living room, and the temperature soared past 1,000 degrees. Through an unusually cruel twist of fate, investigators theorize, the heat shorted out a thermostat, which turned on the furnace. The forced hot-air heating system began to act like a bellows.

The smoke and superheated gases poured upstairs, and the living room was just moments from flashover - the point at which everything combustible in a room ignites. No more than about three minutes had passed since the furniture caught fire. It burned now like gasoline.

Hoping to save his girlfriend and Ingram's daughters, Rosenberg ran back into the house. Neighbors reported hearing the girls, Crystal Ingram, 10, and Carol, 9, screaming inside their second-story bedroom.

Rosenberg made it upstairs, but he was too late: carbon monoxide and other poison gases had silenced the girls, and Rosenberg's girlfriend, Tara Verrier, 21, apparently was overcome and never roused from her sleep. Rosenberg himself quickly succumbed. The living room flashed over and the whole house was an inferno. Neighbors attempting a rescue could not get in - and when firefighters arrived, just four minutes after the first call, the heat was too intense for them to attempt a rescue, even in their protective gear.

"We used to say you had seven minutes to get out of a burning building," says Deputy State Fire Marshal Richard U. James. "Now, with the things we have put inside, it's about three."

OTTO GEORG Wilhelm Bayer, a German chemist, invented polyurethane in 1937. The first form of this plastic material was rigid. Among its early uses was in the wings of Luftwaffe airplanes, and in the soles of Nazi soldiers' boots.

The foam form came when chemists figured out how to put tiny bubbles into polyurethane - an innovation that created a product that could be easily manufactured in many sizes and shapes. Flexible polyurethane foam was comfortable, durable and relatively inexpensive - and starting in the 1950s, it began to replace the horsehair, cotton, wool, feathers, latex rubber and other materials then used inside mattresses and upholstered furniture (and car and airplane seats and other places). By the 1970s, polyurethane foam was ubiquitous in America.

"Flexible polyurethane foam (FPF) is one of the most versatile materials ever created. We're literally surrounded by it in our lives," says industry group Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam on its Web site, www.afpf.com/furnguide.html.

Dozens of companies make foam or supply the raw materials used in its manufacture, including the multinational giants Dow Chemical, BASF, Bayer and Shell. The leading manufacturer of foam in the United States is Foamex, based in Linwood, Pa., with $1.25 billion in annual revenues.

"You'll find Foamex foams inside, around and under thousands of products from hundreds of manufacturers," the company says on its Web site, www.foamex.com. "They protect automobile passengers on the highway and fragile electronic components in shipment. They help consumers sleep sounder and furniture manufacturers create more comfortable products. They add to the luxury, comfort and performance of home and commercial carpeting." Foamex also makes retail products, including Eggcrate brand mattress toppers. "Sleep Better Night after Night with Foamex Pads," reads an ad.

Foam makers have long understood the dangers of their product. They know that all carbon-based products will burn - but the open-celled structure of flexible polyurethane foam provides easy access to the oxygen that combustion requires.

Insurers also have long understood how foam burns. In 1968, Factory Mutual Research Corp. (now FM Global, headquartered in Johnston) issued a report warning its industrial clients about the dangers of warehoused foam. "Foamed Polyurethane: the Solid That Burns Like a Flammable Liquid," the report was titled.

Today, foam manufacturers go to lengths to keep flexible polyurethane foam (FPF) from burning during production, storage and shipment to consumer-product manufacturers. "FPF should not be exposed to open flames or other direct or indirect high-temperature ignition sources such as burning cigarettes, matches, fireplaces, space heaters, forklifts, welding sparks or bare light bulbs," the alliance declares at www.afpf.com/furnguide.html. "As an added precaution, it is recommended that all areas where FPF is stored or handled need to be protected by automatic sprinkler systems."

But consumers do not always understand the perils of foam.

THE DANGERS of polyurethane generated headlines - and government concern - after a series of deadly fires involving the plastic material in the United States and abroad during the late '60s and early '70s.

The most catastrophic was on Nov. 1, 1970, in a French nightclub whose interior had been sprayed with foam to create the illusion of a cave. The foam ignited, unleashing a vortex of fire, superheated air and poison gas that killed 146 people, including many teenagers. "A huge flame leaped into the air and suddenly plunged down to the main floor like a whirlwind," a survivor told the United Press International. "Everybody was screaming, screaming, and suddenly nothing more except the sounds of the sirens...."

Even before the French fire, Congress established the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, a panel that issued a 177-page report in 1973. The panel warned that the increasing use of flammable plastics in homes and in businesses had created hazards rarely seen before: synthetic materials such as polyurethane burned extremely hot and fast, producing toxic gases and byproducts that could quickly kill even at a distance from flames. In essence, a plastic-fueled fire could transform a house into a gas chamber.

"What makes plastics relevant to our discussion of materials is not only that many of them have introduced hazards previously uncommon," the commission wrote, "but that they are sold and used without adequate attention to the special fire hazards they present."

The commission urged safer products and safety education - and warned of a potential conflict of interest: "The economic interests of manufacturers, installers, vendors and others often run counter to stringent fire safety requirements."

Clearly, government had a role to play if lives were to be saved and injuries prevented.

FOAM CAN BURN inside a bed or a chair, but government regulators and firefighters' associations have traditionally drawn distinctions between the makers of mattresses and the makers of upholstered furniture: a person sleeping faces a different sort of hazard than someone sitting. The manufacturers of mattresses and upholstered furniture have separate trade associations and lobbies.

Starting in 1974, the U.S. Commerce Department required that all mattresses sold in the United States be resistant to smoldering cigarettes, considered by experts then to be the paramount household ignition threat. But the federal government passed no such requirement for another type of ignition: so-called small open-flame sources such as candles, matches or lighters.

Some states, however, did adopt the tougher open-flame standard - for prison mattresses. In the United States today, incarcerated criminals sleep more safely than children.

Nor did the federal government require upholstered furniture to be safer. The industry adopted its own, voluntary standard - compliance is optional - in the 1970s. But like the mattress standard, the upholstered furniture standard addresses ignition only by smoldering cigarettes, not small open flame.

Three decades later, nothing has changed.

THOUSANDS DIE or are injured every year in home fires involving mattresses, bedding and upholstered furniture, but the casualties mount in small numbers: one dead here, another somewhere else. The incremental and localized nature of these tragedies means they fail to achieve critical mass in a society where news of 100 dead in West Warwick goes global - but four dead in Westerly doesn't warrant a sentence of national coverage.

Even when a home fire makes headlines, the materials that burned are not always mentioned. A typical first-day news account notes that a fire "is under investigation," and sometimes that is the last published word. Even in follow-up stories, investigators may identify only the point of origin of the fire - bed, sofa, chair - but not the material commonly found within.

Because foam burns so ferociously, destroying potential evidence, lawyers have difficulty mounting the sort of high-profile court cases that have focused public attention on tobacco, asbestos and other potentially dangerous substances.

"One of the problems with litigating in the area is that the stuff burns so good that when you're looking at the remains of it, a lot of times you're not able to identify who made it, and then you've got no case," says Robin P. Foster, a lawyer in Greenville, S.C., who has represented victims of upholstered furniture fires in claims against manufacturers.

"You're relying on physical evidence, you're relying on the information from the clients or from the occupants, and a lot of times these fires occur in areas of low socio-economic housing where the family - you know, they get their furniture from Uncle Joe who got it from a yard sale 10 years ago, and it was handed down two generations. ... It gets handed down a lot and you get where you can't identify it and you're stuck."

STILL, ADVOCATES occasionally break through.

Whitney Davis did on Feb. 7, 2000, when he urged the CPSC to adopt tougher flammability standards for mattresses. Davis brought three young boys badly injured in mattress fires to a hearing in Bethesda, Md., and when it was over, one of them, 10-year-old Damon Bihl, spoke at a press conference that made national news.

Dressed in a suit and tie - but with a bandage covering most of his head - the boy said he had come to Maryland from his home in California "so that other kids don't get burned like me." Damon lost his left hand, left ear and portions of his face when he played with matches on his mother's bed and the mattress caught fire. At the time, Damon was 3.

Seven years later, his wounds had still not healed.

"It hurts a lot," the boy told the reporters. "Most of all I want the doctors to give me a new hand. Then I could play baseball."

Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News and other national outlets carried the dramatic story, as did many local TV stations. One, Boston Channel 7 (WHDH), later aired a report called "Burning Beds" about the dangers of foam in mattresses. The report was presented by then-reporter Jeffrey A. Derderian, co-owner of The Station nightclub.

But the publicity faded. The issue of household foam returned to the shadows, to a small government agency headquartered in Bethesda.

ESTABLISHED BY Congress with the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act, the CPSC has the power to set standards and rules, initiate recalls and ban dangerous products. More than 15,000 products fall under the agency's jurisdiction, including toys, children's clothing, home appliances, batteries, extension cords, even noncommercial fireworks.

No items under CPSC jurisdiction play a deadlier role in home fires than products that usually contain foam, a fact the commission acknowledges. On the very first page of an October 2001 report on the flammability of upholstered furniture, the CPSC stated:

"Upholstered furniture-related fires account for more residential fire deaths than any other category of consumer products under the commission's jurisdiction. A disproportionate number of these fire losses, including one-third of the deaths, were to children under 15."

According to the NFPA, 543 people died in 11,600 fires involving just upholstered furniture in 1998, the last year for which data are available; another 1,425 were injured and direct property damage totaled $224.5 million. The CPSC assessed the total "societal cost" in that one year at $2.4 billion. (Most upholstered furniture sold today contains some polyurethane foam, according to the CPSC.)

And these numbers do not include the toll from mattress and bedding fires in 1998: 398 deaths, 2,309 injuries and $292 million in direct property damage.

The October 2001 furniture report is called a "briefing package," a document produced by the CPSC staff for the agency's three commissioners, who today continue to consider a tougher, open-flame resistance standard. With appendices, the report ran to 922 pages and was years in the making.

It was just one of many reports, studies, hearings and tests involving the flammability of foam over the last three decades.

Industry and the federal government have excelled at identifying the problem. But they have not solved it.

"People are sleeping and sitting on pieces of furniture filled with solid gasoline," says Davis. "For a few bucks, we could eliminate the risk."

* Read more safety tips online:


* * *

Fire safety tips

* Never smoke in bed.

* Do not store old mattresses in your attic or basement.

* Keep matches and lighters out of the reach of children.

* Install smoke detectors in every bedroom and in closets of children's bedrooms - sometimes children hide in their closets to play with matches.

* Leave at least 3 feet between beds and portable heaters or fixed space heaters.

* Don't run electrical cords over or under a bed and don't jam them between beds and walls.

* Keep candles away from bedding, curtains and sleepwear.

The series:

Polyurethane foam, used to soundproof The Station nightclub stage, is everywhere in American homes - in upholstered furniture and mattresses, in pillows and carpet padding. When foam catches fire, it can kill with deadly speed. Yet most of us are unaware of its dangers.

Upholstered furniture fires killed 17,108 Americans from 1980 through 1998, the latest year for which complete figures are available. Most of the upholstered furniture sold today contains some polyurethane foam, which burns intensely and releases gases that can quickly render a person unconscious.

Mattresses and bedding sold in America could be safer, but the federal government so far has not required tougher national flammability standards. The technology exists to make our beds safer, but the government and industry have been slow to embrace it.

The Providence Journal commissions a fire laboratory in Washington state to burn a bed - and the results demonstrate the ferocity of household fires involving polyurethane foam.

This is staff writer G. Wayne Miller's 12th series for The Providence Journal. His earlier topics have included NASCAR auto racing, the invention of open-heart surgery, the toy industry, Newport society, a year in the life of a high school boy and pediatric surgery. Miller is also the author of six books. Visit him online at www.gwaynemiller.com

Peter B. Lord has covered environmental issues at The Providence Journal for more than 20 years. His last series was on lead-paint poisoning in children. Lord has traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to the Shetland Islands to cover an oil spill, and to Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica to write about development issues. Lord is a co-director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Journalism and recently served on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

FATAL FOAM - PART TWO: It's in our upholstered furniture.
Publication Date: September 29, 2003  Page: A-01  Section: News  Edition: All 

This is the second of a four-part series on the dangers of polyurethane foam in our homes.

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THE VIDEO opens with the outside of a two-story house. It could be any house, in any suburban neighborhood. All is peaceful.

The camera moves inside, to a living room furnished with everyday taste. Curtains adorn the windows, and wall-to-wall carpeting covers the floor. A couch sits in the middle. A chair, a lamp, an end table and a coffee table complete the decor.

The camera zooms in on a wastebasket, filled with newspapers, at the bottom of the couch. As the narrator of this National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire-safety documentary talks about careless disposal of cigarettes, a hand empties an ashtray into the basket.

In about the time it would take that person to climb the stairs to bed, the newspapers catch.

Flame quickly peels back the cover fabric of the couch, exposing a flexible polyurethane foam cushion. The foam ignites, sending up thickening black smoke. It looks like a car-engine fire. It looks like burning gasoline.

"After only 90 seconds," the narrator says, "the room is filled with toxic smoke and gases. The smoke detector has not yet sounded. Even with a fire this large, a family asleep upstairs could be unaware of the danger."

The fire intensifies.

"One minute, 45 seconds after the fire started," the narrator continues, "the smoke detector sounds. Smoke begins to move upstairs."

The smoke carries a lethal cocktail of gases, including hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, which at high concentrations can quickly render a person unconscious, then kill him or her.

The camera cuts to the stairway, then back to the living room, where the smoke fills the top half of the room and presses lower and lower. Only a third of the couch is burning, but the fire already is terrible trouble.

"Three minutes have elapsed. Smoke engulfs the upstairs hall, making escape difficult. Outside, there is no evidence of a fire."

The camera shows the house exterior. All still seems peaceful.

Inside the living room, the burning foam and other materials have sent the temperature past 1,000 degrees. The fire has reached flashover, the point at which the heat is so intense that everything combustible in the room ignites - even objects not directly touched by flame. The camera shows the couch, chair, tables, curtains and carpeting all burning savagely. The smoke swirls like a tornado.

"In less than four minutes, everything in the living room ignites violently. The temperature is more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. For the first time, flames and smoke are visible outside. Deadly smoke and toxic gases fill the rooms inside."

By now, the fire rages uncontrollably and the smoke is blinding. The chance of anyone getting out alive drops with every passing second. Even a firefighter in full protective gear would enter this house at peril.

"A real fire is not like what you see in the movies," the narrator concludes. "Real fire is fast, hot, choking, and too often deadly. Now that you know, plan to protect your family from the power of fire."

Produced by the NFPA to educate a public audience, this video of an unscientific demonstration of a burning room in a real house graphically illustrates what firefighters, fire-safety groups, government and the manufacturers of upholstered furniture have long known: when foam ignites, it can kill.

The 11,600 fires involving upholstered furniture in the United States claimed 543 lives in 1998, the latest year for which data are available, according to the NFPA; another 1,425 were injured, and direct property damage was $224.5 million. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) calculated the total "societal cost" of upholstered furniture fires that year at $2.4 billion. And it determined that one-third of the deaths were to children under 15, the age group some experts say is most likely to play with matches, lighters or candles.

Many ordinary consumers, though, have only a vague awareness of the dangers of foam in furniture (and mattresses) - if they are aware at all.

"Foam cushions us; we sleep on it; it cradles our babies," says Whitney A. Davis, director of the California-based Children's Coalition for Fire Safe Mattresses. "Nobody knows that the foam is solid gasoline that incinerates entire families in less time than it takes for the fire department to arrive at the blaze."

AMERICA'S household-furniture manufacturing industry is concentrated in California and the South, notably Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina, where the city of High Point calls itself The Furniture Capital of the World.

According to Andy S. Counts, chief executive officer of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, based in High Point, the upholstered furniture industry consists of about 1,000 firms, with the 50 largest - including the most popular brand names - accounting for more than two-thirds of wholesale shipments of $10.2 billion last year. According to the CPSC, most upholstered furniture sold today contains some polyurethane foam.

It is a competitive business with relatively small profit margins, one in which consumers are highly price-sensitive - as evidenced by the many retail advertisements in newspapers and on TV. The ads speak to beauty and comfort, not the dangers of foam.

Manufacturers have understood that danger for decades, and it was the federal government's mandate that mattresses be made resistant to ignition by smoldering cigarettes that prompted the furniture makers to adopt - with CPSC approval - a voluntary standard of their own in the 1970s. The standard is administered by the Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC), an independent group also based in High Point.

"UFAC was formed to allow upholstered furniture manufacturers the opportunity to work with the CPSC in a meaningful way to design safety standards which are effective, cost-effective and workable from a manufacturing standpoint," UFAC explains on its Web site, www.homefurnish.com/UFAC/manufacturers.htm. "The only logical course of action for the furniture industry was to create a voluntary program that would develop a better safety record for the industry, at a lower cost, than the proposed government regulations."

Manufacturers participating in UFAC agree to sell a product that resists ignition to lit cigarettes that come into direct contact with upholstered furniture. There is no requirement to resist ignition by open flame, such as from matches, candles or lighters, or the blazing trash that ignited the couch in the NFPA video.

Counts says that "upwards of 90-plus percent" of U.S. manufacturers comply with the cigarette standard, a figure in agreement with CPSC estimates. Imports are another matter. According to Counts, imported upholstered furniture grew at an annual rate of 21 percent from 1996 through 2002, accounting now for over $1.4 billion in annual sales. Counts does not know how many overseas manufacturers comply with the voluntary standard, nor does the CPSC, the agency with the power to regulate every piece of upholstered furniture sold in the United States.

UFAC PROVIDES manufacturers with the test criteria to meet its smoldering-cigarette standard. It also conducts a safety-education campaign, using a page on its Web site, "Home Safe Home," www.homefurnish.com/UFAC/homesafehome.htm. "Home Sweet Home has taken on new meaning for today's consumers," UFAC says, "and as Americans increasingly turn to their homes as havens for enjoying their family and friends, they are looking for these comfort zones to not only be comfortable and inviting, but safe and secure as well."

UFAC also offers the 26 "ABCs for safe home furnishings." They include M, "for matches, which should be kept away from children. . ." and N, "for nighttime, when it gets dark. When the sun goes down, lighting should come on. . . . Candles are a nice touch for evening, but use caution near upholstery and bedding." The ABCs end with Z, "for the great ZZZs you'll catch when you know your family is safe at home."

But the centerpiece of UFAC's campaign is its safety tag, which manufacturers can choose to attach to their products. The voluntary tags are written in English, Spanish and French, and contain a "Safety Warning" on the gold-colored front. The back provides small-print detail, warning consumers to be careful when smoking and to properly install and maintain smoke detectors.

"Keep upholstery away from flames or lit cigarettes," the tag also advises. "Upholstery may burn rapidly, with toxic gas & thick smoke. Keep children away from matches and lighters. Fires from candles, lighters, matches or other smoking materials are still possible."

Firefighters and fire-safety advocates contend that even when manufacturers use the tags, the message is sometimes poorly communicated to the consumer, if communicated at all. A recent spot check of several furniture stores in Rhode Island confirmed that the presence of safety tags is far from universal. It was difficult to find any tags in two stores. Clerks seemed unaware of the dangers of foam. One said he assumed all of the furniture was "fireproofed."

Even if every piece of furniture carried a tag, the warnings would have inherent limitations, since most preschoolers cannot read - and no tag can eliminate the age-old temptation of fire to children.

Robin P. Foster, a Greenville, S.C., lawyer who has represented the victims of upholstered furniture fires in claims against manufacturers, says, "No matter how well we try to educate our public to keep our kids away from cigarette lighters, they're pretty crafty and they get a hold of them and they defeat the child-resistant features and they start fires. And that's going to continue to happen."

Foster adds: "A lot of people erroneously believe that they can put these fires out, and they go try to put water on them and so forth and they waste valuable escape time. By the time you realize it, you're not able to get your family out in a lot of circumstances."

AS BEST AS INVESTIGATORS will ever be able to determine, the fire that killed Frances M. Passineau, of Woonsocket, in the early hours of April 4, 2002, started as she sat in an upholstered chair. A heavy smoker, the woman was apparently having a cigarette.

At some point, investigators suspect, she fell asleep.

At some point, the cigarette left her control. Perhaps it first ignited newspapers or trash, as in the NFPA video. No one will ever know, for fires often destroy that kind of evidence.

Whatever the sequence, the chair caught fire. The burn pattern on Passineau's body suggested that the woman continued to sleep as the fire started to blaze.

Eventually, it woke her. Passineau began screaming for help.

Her cries awakened others who lived in the triple-decker on Social Street, and they all got out safely. Someone ran to a pay phone and dialed 911. The first respondent, a police officer, arrived almost immediately. Hysterical residents told him that someone was trapped in the first-floor front apartment. The officer saw flames pouring from the windows.

"His report indicates that he truly attempted to make entry into the front apartment on the first floor, but conditions were not tolerable," the Rhode Island Fire Marshal's office stated in its official report.

According to the report, Passineau, 51, was a "mentally challenged individual" who was receiving assistance from Northern R.I. Community Services, a mental health agency. Her condition may have affected her reactions. The agency would not discuss her case.

Somehow, Passineau made it the short distance from her chair to the kitchen, where her body was found on the floor. Investigators think she may have been seeking water to fight the fire.

But a glass or pan of tap water would not have helped. The fire apparently had reached flashover - and when firefighters finally quelled it, the apartment house was a total loss. Nineteen people, including children, were left homeless.

Investigators examining Passineau's apartment wrote that "the charred 'shadow' of the chair's presence was seen on the floor" - and "what appeared to be coil springs," nothing more. Investigators believe the chair had contained foam, but an exact determination of even the chair type was impossible. "That this chair was most possibly a recliner-rocker with a pillow seat might be a valid assumption," is all the officials could conclude.

WITH GREATER USE of smoke detectors, UFAC's voluntary standards, and other factors, deaths and injuries from upholstered furniture fires did decline significantly during the 1980s and 1990s. From a peak of 1,360 in 1981, deaths in American homes dropped to 543 in 1998.

But by the mid-1990s, the death rate had plateaued, flattening out at an annual average of 636 from 1994 to 1998, according to the NFPA. And while reduced, the cigarette risk was not eliminated. According to the NFPA, "abandoned or discarded smoking materials" (a category that includes a small number of cases involving cigars and pipes) caused upholstered furniture fires that killed 45 percent of all those who died in such fires on an annual average in the 1994-1998 period.

Advocates and firefighters say that substantial further progress will require furniture that meets an open-flame standard - furniture like that sold in England, where a tougher standard has been in place since 1988.

Seeking such a mandatory national standard, the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) in 1993 petitioned the CPSC. The agency seemed to be persuaded: in June of 1994, it published an advance notice of proposed rule-making, signaling its intention to begin considering such a regulation.

Nine years later, the agency is still considering.

Studies have been conducted, hearings held, briefing packages prepared. And a congressman added to the delay.

REP. ROGER WICKER represents Mississippi's 1st District, where upholstered furniture factories employ thousands. From 1997 through June, the latest Federal Election Commission reports show, he received $19,000 from the American Furniture Manufacturers Association.

Learning of CPSC's consideration of an open-flame regulation, Wicker in 1998 succeeded in passing an appropriations rider to the CPSC budget preventing such a mandate pending further study of flame-retardant chemicals, one way a tougher national mandate could be met. The chemicals, Wicker told a congressional hearing on July 16, 1998, might be a health hazard. "There can be very harmful effects to the workers and also to the consumers, and we need to let the scientists look at this," Wicker said.

But New Hampshire state Fire Marshal Donald P. Bliss, now the president of NASFM, told The Washington Post: "We don't see any issues with regard to toxicity or carcinogenic effects, particularly when you compare it with the loss of life from these furnishings." Then-CPSC chairwoman Ann Brown told the paper: "The commission ought to be able to do its job."

A study by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council concluded that 8 of the 16 chemicals under consideration presented "minimal risk," according to the study's chairman. But that study was not released until April 2000, at which point the CPSC had bogged down again.

ONE OF THE LAST major public developments involving a tough flammability standard was in June 2002, when the CPSC held two days of hearings. Counts told the agency that he supported a mandatory national standard and that he and his industry would continue to work with the CPSC to help achieve it.

In a letter sent this past May to CPSC chairman Hal Stratton, Counts said that a mandatory flammability standard for upholstered furniture should address ignition by small open flame and also by cigarettes, now the subject of the voluntary UFAC standard. But he repeated his contention that writing regulations is no easy task.

"For a number of years," he wrote, "the American Furniture Manufacturers Association (AFMA) has worked with CPSC and other stakeholders to identify a sensible regulatory approach to reducing the flammability risk associated with upholstered furniture.

"Like the other participants, we have at times felt confounded by the complexity of this issue and the elusiveness of a straightforward, effective solution that would account for the variety of fabrics, cushioning materials, ignition sources, and patterns of human behavior underlying this hazard."

Among the many factors complicating adoption of a national standard, Counts wrote, are uncertainties involving the flame retardants that could be applied to upholstered furniture fabric: cleaning or "wear and tear" could compromise effectiveness, as could use of slipcovers. And, he wrote, one study of flame retardants showed that some of these chemicals provided resistance to open-flame ignition - while "losing" resistance to cigarette ignition.

In an interview, Counts said that the environmental safety of flame retardants also remains an issue. And he raised public health concerns about retardants, especially the ones known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which Europe is banning - and which are showing up in high concentrations in the breast milk of American women, according to a study released just last week. Counts also questioned how even a harmless retardant might affect the aesthetic appeal of a fine fabric such as silk. "If you backcoat certain fine silks and other fabrics," he said, "you're going to make them very rigid and boardlike."

Counts saw possibilities in barrier technology, but not immediately. "This is an emerging technology that has just recently been developed for mattresses which we cannot carry over into residential furniture at this point, but it does show some promise," he said.

At least one manufacturer of barrier materials says it could meet demand for residential furniture: the North Carolina firm of McKinnon-Land-Moran, which manufactures a tough heat- and flame-resistant fiber called Basofil, recipient of the California Fire Chiefs Association 2002 Award for Innovation in Fire Protection. The company describes Basofil as a white, dyeable, soft, comfortable, non-allergenic, odor-free, synthetic fiber that can be woven into fabrics with existing technology and machines.

According to Frank Land, president and chief operating officer of McKinnon-Land-Moran, Basofil today is used in airplane seats and firefighters' suits and is available for use in the manufacture of residential mattresses and household upholstered furniture. Basofil (and Allesandra, a fabric containing Basofil) would pass an open-flame resistance test such as that which the CPSC is considering, Land said.

"We will step up to the plate and meet whatever the demand is in the marketplace," Land said.

THE LAST PUBLIC development involving the flammability of upholstered furniture was last Wednesday, when the CPSC held a morning-long hearing at its headquarters in Bethsesda, Md. Dozens of representatives of the textile, fabric, furniture and foam industries attended, as did fire-safety experts.

Almost everyone who spoke said they favored a tougher national standard - but the CPSC was left to resolve the many issues that representatives raised, a process that a CPSC analyst said could take several months or more. Would the use of barrier materials or treating fabrics with flame retardants best meet a new standard - or should the foam inside most upholstered furniture be treated with retardants, too? Do retardants pose a health hazard? How long should an open-flame test last? What would it cost to comply with a new standard?

To that, NASFM president Bliss said: "We did not encourage burn survivors to attend today's hearing, but as we consider the economic hardships that any regulation inevitably imposes, let us not forget those who have lost so much from these fires. Their suffering is by far the concern of greater merit."

Foster doubts the industry is ready to accept mandatory tough flammability standards. "They don't want to be regulated," he says. "It's just a giant industry with a lot of lobbying effort that creates a lot of inertia to change."

And Foster maintains that inertia is reflected in the CPSC. He says, "They send out a proposal and they wait to get feedback from all of these groups: the polyurethane foam industry, the textile industry - they're all huge - furniture makers. It's trying to move a juggernaut."

But the CPSC could move, Foster maintains.

"They've got the power to do it," he says.

* * *

Upholstered furniture fires in U.S. homes

Year Deaths Injuries

1980 1,356 2,972

1981 1,360 2,626

1982 1,185 2,532

1983 1,099 2,698

1984 1,093 2,313

1985 931 2,331

1986 1,068 2,197

1987 1,030 2,145

1988 1,098 2,291

1989 883 2,116

1990 867 2,052

1991 676 2,053

1992 631 1,657

1993 653 1,955

1994 669 1,708

1995 659 1,676

1996 652 1,608

1997 655 1,444

1998 543 1,425

Totals 17,108 39,799

SOURCE: National Fire Protection Assoc.

* * *

IT BEGINS: Seconds after an ashtray is dumped into a wastebasket, flames erupt.

* * *

OUTSIDE: There is no evidence from the street that a fire is growing inside the house.

* * *

STILL QUIET: Though fire is sweeping through the living room, other rooms in the house are still unaffected.

* * *

IN 90 SECONDS: The living room is filled with toxic smoke and gases, but the smoke detector has yet to sound.

* * *

IN THREE MINUTES: Dark poisonous smoke fills the upstairs hallway, making escape difficult.

* * *

UNDER FOUR MINUTES: Everything in the living room erupts in flame, and smoke is visible outside the house.

* * *

ENGULFED: Deadly smoke and toxic gases fill the house.


FATAL FOAM: PART THREE: It's where we sleep.
Publication Date: September 30, 2003  Page: A-01  Section: News  Edition: All 

This is the third of a four-part series on the dangers of polyurethane foam in our homes.

* * *

THE FIRE BEGAN in a bedroom. It was early morning on Nov. 5, 1999, and most of the 20 or so residents of the fieldstone castle at LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro, Mass., were asleep.

The Rev. Paul H. O'Brien, 43, a British priest who was staying at the shrine on a sabbatical, was in Room 330, a small third-story space furnished with a bed, a chair, a bureau, a bookstand and a lamp.

O'Brien was smoking.

Investigators believe he dropped a lit cigarette onto his comforter and then fell asleep. For an unknown period of time, the cigarette smoldered. Eventually, investigators believe, it ignited the comforter.

Owned by the Roman Catholic Missionaries of Our Lady of LaSalette, the castle had been built in 1903 as a sanitarium. It was longer than a football field and featured a stone exterior and post-and-beam wood construction inside. The interior walls were made of ash, trimmed with mahogany and oak. The castle was equipped with smoke detectors, but not sprinklers.

At about 4 a.m., the smoke detector in O'Brien's room began to sound.

Something - perhaps the alarm, perhaps the nascent fire - caused O'Brien to stir. He managed to get out of his bed.

By this point, the comforter, the mattress and the floor under the bed were burning.

The detector's alarm woke the priest in the bedroom next door. The Rev. Ian Robertson thought at first he was hearing an alarm clock. But when he stepped into the hall, he saw smoke pouring from a crack above the door to Room 330.

Robertson grabbed a fire extinguisher, opened the door and cried out for O'Brien. The room was black, except for the glow of a small fire by the bed. Robertson could not see O'Brien in the smoke, but he heard him coughing.

O'Brien had made it a few feet from from his bed before he collapsed and fell unconscious.

Standing in the doorway, Robertson emptied his fire extinguisher, but it was futile: the fire was growing rapidly, its smoke and heat intensifying by the second. The priest went for another extinguisher, and he began to yell "Fire!" Other priests awoke. One ran to Room 330 with an extinguisher. But by then, it was too hot to enter.

At 4:10 a.m., the heat stopped O'Brien's wristwatch.

A priest called 91l. Attleboro firefighters were on scene within five minutes. Learning that O'Brien was trapped inside, they headed for Room 330. The fire was nearing the point of flashover, when everything combustible goes up.

Chief Ronald Churchill, Deputy Chief Russell Goyette, and Capt. Scott. Jacques fought their way into the room with a 13³4-inch hose and found O'Brien near his bed. He was lying on the floor, his knees bent, his hands folded.

A priest later told reporters that O'Brien apparently had been kneeling in prayer before dying, but investigators believe that is simply the position in which, overcome by superheated air and gas, he collapsed.

Jacques grabbed the priest's arm, but it was burned so badly that it began to break off at the elbow. O'Brien was beyond salvation.

The fire spread into the attic, made of century-old wood posts and beams. Inside Room 330, the temperature soared past 1,000 degrees and the aluminum window casings began to melt and burn. Seeing the flames cascading over their heads, Chief Churchill feared the ceiling would collapse, trapping his men. He ordered them out.

Soon, all of the massive building was ablaze. Some 200 firefighters from three dozen departments joined the battle, but it took until 10 a.m. to get the fire under control. They could not get back into Room 330 for another hour to recover the seared remains of the priest.

"The autopsy showed O'Brien's esophagus and lungs were lined with heavy amounts of soot," an official report states. "This indicates O'Brien had inhaled smoke and superheated air while he was alive." The cause of death was determined to be "smoke inhalation and third-degree thermal burns to 95 percent of O'Brien's body." The castle was destroyed, at a loss Massachusetts State Police estimated at more than $20 million.

O'BRIEN'S DEATH was no freak occurrence. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), bedding and mattress fires killed 12,712 Americans and injured another 55,856 from 1980 to 1998, the latest year for which data are available. Direct property damage over the two decades totalled $5.5 billion.

During the most recent five-year period, 1994 through 1998, an average of 508 Americans died in these fires every year, and another 2,555 were injured.

Many were children. Many were poor.

As is often the case in a fire investigation, the remnants of O'Brien's mattress were not analyzed. But it likely contained flexible polyurethane foam: foam has been used in about 90 percent of all mattresses sold in the United States over the last 30 years, according to Gordon Damant, a flammability expert with City Testing and Consulting Corp., in Sacramento, Calif.

Mattresses and bedding sold in America could be safer, but the government so far has not required tougher national flammability standards.

"Meanwhile our kids die," says Whitney A. Davis, director of the California-based Children's Coalition for Fire Safe Mattresses.

IN DOLLAR VOLUME, California, Florida and Texas lead the way in U.S. mattress manufacturing, according to the Census Bureau's 1997 Economic Census; Ohio, North Carolina and New Jersey follow behind. Mattresses are made in at least 35 states, according to the report, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, which together reported 25 factories.

American makers shipped almost 39 million mattresses and box springs last year, at a wholesale value of $4.76 billion, according to the International Sleep Products Association, the industry group based in Alexandria, Va. Mattresses are big business. Dozens of companies make them, but a few giants account for more than half of wholesale revenues.

As did their counterparts in the upholstered furniture industry, mattress makers more than three decades ago understood the danger of the polyurethane foam they increasingly favored in their products. So did the federal government and the State of California. The California legislature voted in 1970 to require all mattresses sold there to be resistant to ignition by lit cigarettes, which experts had concluded were the biggest fire threat. The next year, the U.S. Commerce Department approved a similar standard for all mattresses sold throughout the country beginning in 1974.

The standard did not address another common means by which mattresses can ignite: small open flame, such as a candle or a cigarette lighter, or when smoldering bedding catches fire. According to Davis, some small manufacturers in the 1970s called for an open-flame standard, which they said would add only pennies to the cost of a mattress - but the CPSC, which administered the lesser federal standard, declined to adopt one.

There the matter stood until the 1990s. While England mandated tough standards, and U.S. manufacturers produced open-flame resistant mattresses for use in hospitals, hotels and prisons, the American consumer continued to sleep on a product that could have been safer.

THE LIT-CIGARETTE standard in place now for almost 30 years has in fact helped to significantly reduce the toll from mattress and bedding fires.

According to the NFPA, 61,100 such fires with 937 deaths and almost 3,000 injuries were reported in 1980, a toll that had fallen to 21,400 fires with 398 deaths and 2,309 injuries in 1998. Fires directly caused by cigarettes declined dramatically.

Another factor in the decline, the mattress industry maintains, has been the safety-awareness campaign sponsored by the Sleep Products Safety Council, founded in 1986 by the International Sleep Products Association. The council urges families to draft escape plans and install smoke detectors, among other measures.

Like its upholstered furniture counterpart, the council sponsors a Web site, www.safesleep.org. The site offers fire-safety tips for adults, teachers and children, who can play an online game called Safe Passage. "High atop Hazard Peak sits your bedroom!" one step of the game declares. "Find the eight fire hazards by clicking on them." Among the hazards are a sock draped over a lamp, an iron, a book of matches and a candle.

The council also provides safety tags to manufacturers; similar to those available to makers of upholstered furniture, they warn in English and in Spanish of the dangers of candles, space heaters and smoking in bed. "Check under beds and in closets for burnt matches, evidence your child may be playing with fire," the tag advises. The tag also warns of the danger of storing old mattresses in the home or garage: "They are a fire hazard." And it warns consumers to keep lit candles away from bedding, curtains and sleepwear.

But like furniture tags, these mattress warnings are not always seen by consumers. In a spot survey of a handful of Rhode Island stores, most mattresses did not have warning tags. The tags say, "when ignited, some mattress filling materials can burn rapidly and emit hazardous gases." But fire experts say many people can't appreciate the ferocity of a mattress fire until they actually see one burn.

ROBERT M. DeRENSIS, 38, kept an electric lamp on a plastic milk crate next to his bed in the house he shared with his elderly great-aunt at 8 Peirce St., East Greenwich. He liked to read, and magazines and books filled his bedroom.

As best as investigators could later determine, DeRensis fell asleep with the lamp on, and he knocked it over in his slumber. "The lamp, which was in the 'on' position, [became] wedged between the mattress, box spring, and blankets, and heated these combustibles to the point of ignition," the state Fire Marshal's Office report states. Investigators believe the mattress contained polyurethane foam.

It was nearing dawn on Sept. 27, 2001.

The house lacked smoke detectors. Apparently the fire woke DeRensis, who made it safely downstairs and outside. His great-aunt, Cecilia DeRensis, 85, also escaped unharmed.

But her sister, Adeline DeRensis, 90, did not. As a neighbor placed an emergency call, DeRensis ran back into the house to try to save his other great-aunt.

The first two firefighters to arrive reached the second floor, but they were driven back by the fire's intensity.

"They were confronted by heavy smoke; there was zero visibility and high heat," East Greenwich Fire Chief Thomas Rowan said. Staffing shortages delayed the arrival of more firefighters.

DeRensis died face-down on the floor of his great-aunt's bedroom, holding her hands.

Firefighters brought Adeline DeRensis alive from the building, but she had to wait several minutes for an ambulance to arrive. She died two days later at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital, where she had been placed in a hyperbaric chamber for treatment of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

AS MATTRESS FIRES ignited directly by cigarettes declined, those caused by open-flame sources began to rise slightly in the early '90s.

The CPSC detected this trend and brought it to the attention of the mattress industry at the 1993 "Combustibility Conference," sponsored by the Sleep Products Safety Council. The council and the CPSC agreed to study the trend - and consider adopting the kind of tougher standard that had not been adopted two decades before.

Another round of studies had begun.

One study, begun by the CPSC in 1996, sent investigators to the scenes of fires, where knowledge that could not be divined from statistics alone could be learned.

A second study, by the Sleep Council in collaboration with the National Association of State Fire Marshals, investigated in depth some 220 bedroom fires in New York, Chicago, Seattle and Houston.

Those two studies confirmed what many firefighters already knew: children playing with fire started many mattress fires; poor people were more likely to be victims; and in almost two-thirds of the cases, comforters, pillows, mattress pads and the like (bedding, or "bedclothing" in industry parlance) were the first to ignite, often by careless use of matches, lighters or candles.

A third, unrelated study by the U.S. Fire Administration, showed a strong correlation between drinking and bedding/mattress and upholstered furniture fires.

A fourth study, by the NFPA, showed that home fires caused by candles rose from 8,240 in 1980 to 15,040 in 1999. Almost 2,000 mattress and bedding fires were started by candles in 1999, killing 30, injuring 363, and causing almost $50 million in direct property damage. (Another 850 fires in 1999 started by candles igniting upholstered furniture killed 12, injured 151, and caused $27.6 million in direct property damage.)

With new information, the Sleep Products Safety Council and its parent group decided to underwrite another study.

This one, conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and endorsed by the CPSC, examined the relationship of bedding fires to mattress fires and suggested test methods that manufacturers might use in an open-flame standard. The first phase of the study was concluded in June of 2000 (and the second in August 2002 and the third in February).

In October 2001, eight years after the "Combustibility Conference," the CPSC finally published an advance notice of proposed rule-making, signaling its intention to begin considering a tougher, nationwide standard.

Two years later, the CPSC continues to study.

DAVIS HAPPENED onto the dangers of burning mattresses and bedding as a young lawyer assigned the case of a 7-year-old boy badly burned when a malfunctioning vaporizer ignited a mattress. "I first saw the boy's picture taken a month before the fire," Davis said. "Then I met him. . . . No face, no hand. He was 8 by then. He looked 80 after his 25 surgeries." Davis had found a cause.

When he brought three children who were horribly scarred in mattress and bedding fires to a CPSC hearing on Feb. 7, 2000, he hoped that their stories of suffering would move the commission to quick action. Every passing month meant more dead and injured children and adults.

Davis was wrong.

Frustrated by federal inertia, Davis turned to his home state of California, the largest consumer market in the land. At least California's nearly 35 million residents could start sleeping more safely, Davis reasoned - and given the size of the market, perhaps California could influence the rest of the nation.

Prodded by Davis, the California General Assembly in July 2001 passed Assembly Bill 603. The law required all mattresses sold in California to meet a small open-flame mattress standard, incorporated in Technical Bulletin 603, by Jan. 1, 2004. Two and a half years, lawmakers reasoned, would be enough time for mattress manufacturers and suppliers of flame-resistance technology to gear up production.

Recognizing that burning bedding is often the source of ignition for a mattress fire, the lawmakers also authorized the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to require a separate standard for comforters, pillows and other such "filled" bedding - some of which contains polyurethane foam - if the bureau determined them to be a significant hazard.

The bureau did.

"Our tests showed that filled bedding products alone can get a room close to flashover," said bureau spokesman Miles Bristow. "There can be a lot of heat energy in just your comforter, pillows and mattress pads."

So the bureau decided to write Technical Bulletin 604, which will require manufacturers of comforters, mattress pads and pillows to meet an open-flame standard. No date of implementation has been set.

THE CALIFORNIA Bureau held public hearings on TB 603, the proposed mattress standard, on April 22 in San Francisco and on April 24 in Diamond Bar, Calif. (Hearings have yet to be held on TB 604.)

Makers of fire-barrier materials testified they were ready to supply the mattress industry with what it needed to meet TB 603. ElkCorp of Ennis, Texas, noted that it already supplied a mattress maker with the lifesaving technology - and the maker, Carolina Mattress Guild, already marketed "Safe Dreams," a line of mattresses that passes TB 603. Another company, McKinnon-Land-Moran, of Charlotte, N.C., sells Basofil, a heat- and flame-resistant fiber than allows a mattress to resist open-flame ignition.

But armed with economic-impact studies and lawyers' briefs, representatives of the mattress industry, organized labor and the retail sector challenged the new California standard and its proposed Jan. 1 implementation.

Representatives maintained that mattress makers would not have enough time to retool production. They maintained the 60-minute open-flame resistance test specified in TB-603 was too long. They maintained that increased costs would dampen consumer demand, which would lead to job losses - and "exacerbate California's budget deficit" by reducing tax revenues.

As proposed, the International Sleep Products Association and the Sleep Products Safety Council maintained in a joint 36-page commentary, TB-603 "will also likely discourage non-California producers from shipping mattresses into the state, thereby harming California consumers by limiting competition and product choice."

Fire officials at the hearing pushed the safety issue.

"Is an effective date of Jan. 1, 2004, too soon?" asked the president of the California Fire Chiefs Association, which supported TB-603. "This is a matter for the bureau and mattress producers to decide. But keep in mind that fires don't consult calendars."

The special interests won: in July, the bureau announced that it would delay implementation of TB-603 until Jan. 1, 2005, and it reduced the open-flame test from 60 to 30 minutes.

But, one of the nation's mattress manufacturing giants, Serta Inc., has just announced that it will break ranks with the industry and immediately begin to produce mattresses that meet the California standard. Up to now, only one small company, Carolina Mattress Guild, has been making such mattresses.

Meanwhile, the mattress industry's trade association hailed California's decision.

"Throughout the development of these regulations, we never lost sight of our mutual goal - to reduce or prevent residential bedding fire deaths. California should be commended for its leadership in this area," said Patricia Martin, executive director of the Sleep Council, in a press release.

Davis saw it differently. "The governor, the bureau, labor and those few industry members without conscience, seek to sacrifice the lives of our children," he wrote in a letter to California officials.

And he told The Providence Journal: "I am tired of picking up the pieces of a disfigured child or the incinerated elderly. Their images live with me every night."

A NATIONAL open-flame standard would supersede any state's standard, and bring the entire country to a new era of fire safety. The International Sleep Products Association and its Sleep Council are on record as favoring such a national standard - both for competitive and safety reasons.

"A federal standard will create a level playing field for all mattress producers and is likely to achieve the highest compliance and the greatest impact on consumer safety," said executive director Martin in a press release posted on safesleep.org.

But the CPSC has not adopted a national standard, nor would chairman Hal Stratton predict when it might. "It's very process-intensive," Stratton said in an interview. Complicating the issue, Stratton said, is that the CPSC - like California with its proposed TB 604 - is considering including bedding in an open-flame standard. Like California, the CPSC recognizes the role that comforters, pillows and pads can play in igniting mattresses.

Regardless of what happens on the national level, the CPSC may further delay implementation of California's standard.

That's because federal law states that a federal standard protecting against the same risk preempts any state rule. Since the CPSC already has a national mattress flammability standard - albeit for resistance to cigarettes, not small open flame - California will have to apply to the CPSC for a so-called "exemption from preemption" before it can implement TB 603.

"It's in the statute," Stratton said. "It's not something we have any control over."

Once California applies, the CPSC would study its request. A hearing would be held. And at some point, the three CPSC commissioners would have to vote.

Asked about reports in the trade press that the process could take up to two years after application, Stratton said:

''I probably shouldn't say because when we get timelines, they just don't work.''

* Look back at previous installments of the series, read additional safety tips, and more:



* * *



Year Deaths Injuries

1980 937 2,988

1981 824 2,919

1982 697 2,992

1983 696 3,124

1984 665 2,830

1985 855 2,877

1986 725 2,775

1987 718 3,147

1988 922 3,266

1989 650 3,195

1990 622 2,926

1991 623 3,216

1992 620 3,406

1993 620 3,420

1994 465 3,013

1995 525 2,644

1996 662 2,502

1997 488 2,307

1998 398 2,309

Totals 12,712 55,856

SOURCE: National Fire Protection Assoc.

* * *





* * *

* IN FLAMES: The fire at the LaSalette Shrine castle took off from the bed where it started and spread fast, causing $20 million in damage.


* GUTTED: The LaSalette Shrine fire in 1999 was started when a priest dropped a lit cigarette onto his bed.


FATAL FOAM: PART THREE - It's where we sleep : One small company puts safety first
Publication Date: September 30, 2003  Page: A-13  Section: News  Edition: All 

It's a mattress advertisement like no other.

Instead of promoting comfort, sound sleep or an end to back problems, the ad shows a big pack of matches and a headline that reads: "This is how a firefighter sees your mattress."

Neal and Kathy Grigg and their Carolina Mattress Guild got the jump on the rest of the country last spring by producing a line of mattresses that are designed to resist fire.

A few months later, the North Carolina company launched what may be an unprecedented advertising campaign that is designed to grab the attention of retailers and make them care about mattress safety.

Anticipating government mandates for fire-safe mattresses sometime in the next few years, the Griggs explain in their ad, "We chose to embrace safety today rather than wait for a mandate because it is the right thing to do."

And now one of the giants in the industry has announced plans to join Carolina Mattress Guild in getting ahead of the mandate. Serta Inc., the second-largest manufacturer of mattresses in the country, has announced that it will begin this fall to produce flame-resistant mattresses.

Neal Grigg readily concedes that his interest in the dangers of mattresses was triggered in a spectacular and very expensive demonstration: his factory burned down two years ago.

"When you have an insurance claim of $2.8 million, it gets your attention," Grigg said in a recent interview. "Our company barely survived that fire. Regardless of insurance, it never covers everything."

Grigg said the fire shocked him with its speed and ferocity. And it more than convinced him of the dangers of polyurethane foam.

Carolina Mattress had just moved into its new manufacturing plant a few miles outside of High Point, N.C., the so-called furniture capital of the country.

It had just purchased a new quilting machine and built a new device to feed it rolls of quilting. A maintenance man came in on a Saturday morning to attach the device and chose to weld it rather than bolt it to the machine.

Minutes later, when about 30 workers arrived to start the day's production, hot metal from the welding apparently ignited a pile of foam.

"When the girl who operated the machine picked the foam up, the air got to it and it flashed," recalled Grigg. "It immediately just really caught, real hot. From that roll it jumped to another roll. Inside of less than a minute, this whole thing was a total blaze. It is amazing how quick it can happen.

Grigg said he was in the back of the building when the fire broke out and he ran to the front, yelling for people to get out. It was a huge, open room with lots of exits, so everyone did get out safely. But the fire was incredibly destructive.

"It went through the roof," Grigg said. "The roof was 28 feet high. It was a new building. And there were sprinklers. But all they did was slow the fire a bit.

"When you start listening to what firefighters tell you, the mattresses literally explode. As a fire starts, the polyurethane actually starts to melt. It drips down into the springs. Then all of a sudden, there's enough for a major fire."

The fire attracted interest from companies that make flame-resistant materials. Grigg said he tested eight products and settled on material produced by ElkCorp, a Texas-based company that makes roofing products.

"It's a woven Fiberglas material, like fabric. On top of that fabric, they have a coating. It was kind of brittle and hard. So the real key was to figure out how to get this into the mattress so it does not affect the comfort. We put it in as part of our quilting process. We've got it down far enough in there so that you can't feel it.

"We have foam on top of it. When flame gets to the barrier, the coating melts, emitting a nontoxic gas that removes oxygen. No oxygen, no fire. The whole object was to give the occupant of the bed some escape time."

Their fire-safe mattresses have gotten rave reviews from fire safety experts.

North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Jim Long, who also serves as the state fire marshal, praised the Carolina Mattress Guild as being a good corporate citizen by adding to the "overall safety structure of the home in which we live."

Don Bliss, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, praised the company for being at "the forefront of commitment to the safety of citizens."

But Grigg said he said he's not being overwhelmed with orders because few retailers are aware of the fire dangers caused by most mattresses.

"It's not catching on as quickly across the board as we'd like. The reason is we have not been able to tell the story well enough to the retailer," Griggs said. "The biggest problem is your retail salespeople don't know what they're talking about."

Right now, only stores in the mid-Atlantic states are carrying the Safe Dreams mattresses. There is no way for individuals to special order the mattresses because the company is geared for selling truckloads of mattresses to retailers, not individual products.

Grigg has hired a new advertising firm and plans to spend more to expand his market share.

He's producing about 1,000 mattresses a day but only a small percentage are flame resistant.

"I believe in the next three or four years, it will be national.

"I'm excited. I think we've got a golden opportunity to really make a major difference," Grigg said. "We got a doggone good product. We think it looks good.

"I'm optimistic because we believe if we can get the story out a little bit, and certain retailers will start using it as a first in the area that does everything that it needs to do, why not take advantage of it? We can be competitive. It looks good, smells good and it's safe."


FATAL FOAM: PART FOUR - The Providence Journal burn test.
Publication Date: October 1, 2003  Page: A-01  Section: News  Edition: All 

This is the last in a four-part series on the dangers of polyurethane foam in our homes.

THE BURNER shoots a small flame at the foot of the bed, something akin to a wastebasket catching fire, or a candle being knocked over.

The response is immediate, and dramatic.

The purple floral comforter erupts into foot-high flames.

The bed skirt goes up.

Within 30 seconds, a wall of flame rises from the queen-size mattress.

More flames drip from the burning mattress and the polyester-cotton comforter and spread in a pool across the floor.

Within a minute, the end of the bed is engulfed. The flames crackle like a bonfire.

The fire spreads with breathtaking speed.

In another minute, the bed burns with the same energy as a half-gallon of gasoline.

The fire spews carbon monoxide and other deadly gases.

And it generates incredible heat, soaring past 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Seconds later, the bed becomes a potential killer - the point at which flashover ignites every other combustible object in the room. It's the flashover that destroyed the LaSalette Shrine and the house in Westerly.

The intensity of the fire clearly demonstrates why time after time firefighters report that they can't fight their way into rooms where beds or upholstered furniture burn.

It shows why people who fight or study fires say bedding, mattresses and upholstered furniture are causing houses to flash over and become engulfed in flames in roughly three minutes - more than twice as fast as fires of a generation ago.

Bedding, mattresses and upholstered furniture - much of it containing polyurethane foam similar to that which helped make The Station nightclub fire so deadly - killed almost 30,000 Americans from 1980 to 1998, the latest year for which National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data are available. Another 95,655 people were injured, many for life.

TO LEARN firsthand why these fires are so dangerous, and to better appreciate firefighters' dread of the superheated air and poison gases produced by such infernos, The Providence Journal commissioned a fire laboratory in Washington state to burn a bed and record the results.

The staff at Pacific Fire Laboratory, based in a warehouse near Interstate 5 between Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., purchased the mattress and box spring for about $1,000 at a nearby store. The salesman said it was the most popular brand in that price range.

The mattress label said it contained 54 percent polyurethane foam and 46 percent polyester.

The Journal bought the bedding from a home-furnishings store in Providence. The pillow was filled with polyester and covered with cotton fabric. The sheets and pillowcases were 50 percent cotton and 50 percent polyester. The comforter and bed skirt were mostly polyester.

On the day of the burn, the Pacific Fire staff carefully sets the bed on sensitive scales that weigh every component of the bedding, from the 85-pound mattress to the 3.5-ounce pillowcase.

The bed is set in a cavernous room under a hood big enough to cover a two-car garage. Fans will suck the heat and flames up into the hood and instruments will measure temperatures and deadly gases.

The staff carefully makes up the bed with two sheets, a sham, bed skirt, pillow and comforter. The cover mixes flowers and a checked pattern.

It looks like a beautiful, safe place to sleep.

The lab follows a protocol established by the State of California to test the flame resistance of beds used in hospitals and college dormitories. The protocol calls for applying a small propane flame to the foot of the bed for 180 seconds - simulating a "common accidental fire," such as burning newspaper in a wastebasket.

Like most mattresses now sold in the United States, this test mattress is designed only to resist ignition by a burning cigarette. Safety experts want mattress manufacturers to meet tougher safety standards to resist small open flames. That would give the consumer more time to escape a potentially lethal fire.

"The protocol is for a mattress that won't burn. This will burn," says Joseph Urbas, co-owner of Pacific Fire.

Two staff members test two fire hoses to ensure water will flow when needed. They nod to Urbas.

Urbas counts down. When he gets to zero, the crew ignites the propane.

The comforter instantly melts and bursts into flames.

Just 20 seconds into the burn, with the comforter fueling bigger flames than the propane, Urbas quietly announces, "I think the burner is probably not needed anymore."

The staff shuts off the gas and pulls the equipment away.

The fire grows.

THE JOURNAL test would hardly surprise industry insiders or government officials charged with protecting lives: the fire hazards of mattresses, bedding and upholstered furniture have raised alarms as far back as the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Polyurethane and other plastics that were coming into widespread use during that era in homes and business were creating new fire dangers. Congress established the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, a panel of firefighters, professors, insurers, the president of Underwriters' Laboratories, and a burn specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Appallingly, the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world leads all the major industrialized countries in per-capita deaths and property loss from fire," the commission stated in 1973 in "America Burning," a 177-page report that followed two years of study.

The report was illustrated with photographs of a dead child and a horribly scarred woman. Another haunting image showed the shadow left by a person who was overcome on a mattress. "Many of fire's victims never awaken," the caption read. "Smoke, toxic gases, or lack of oxygen kills them while they sleep."

This ran contrary to popular belief, which held that flame usually killed. In fact, the commission observed, flame ranked last of five causes of death: behind asphyxiation (fire depletes the air of oxygen); attack by superheated air or gases; smoke; and the toxic products that smoke can carry, including carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.

The fire commission urged safer products, and better research and education - and it hoped the new Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) would play a significant role. The commission hoped the agency would provide the United States a "refined understanding of the destructive effects of smoke and toxic gases, development of standards to minimize those effects, development of labeling requirements for materials, and outright ban of materials in uses that present unreasonable risks."

But the panel raised a caution.

"We feel that we should be candid in expressing our concern that, because the CPSC is still in its formative stages, and because other hazards (many of them better publicized than combustion hazards) will be competing for attention, the problem of fire safety may become a delayed priority."

AMERICA WAS in the mood to protect when the CPSC was born, in 1972. President Richard M. Nixon had just created the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress was moving to pass the Endangered Species Act, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was requiring seat belts and shoulder straps in cars.

"Today is truly a momentous day for the American consumer," said Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, the longtime champion of consumer safety, when Congress in the fall of 1972 passed the act establishing the CPSC. The act directed the agency "to protect the public against unreasonable risks of injuries associated with consumer products . . . (and) to develop uniform safety standards for consumer products.. . ." Among the products were upholstered furniture and mattresses.

One of the fledgling agency's first actions - and the subject of its very first press release - was a unanimous vote by commissioners, on May 24, 1973, to deny requests by some mattress makers to delay implementation of the Commerce Department's regulation that mattresses resist ignition by lit cigarettes.

"Our principal responsibility is to reduce the risk of injury to consumers from consumer products," CPSC chairman Richard O. Simpson said.

The CPSC accomplished much in the 1970s, including initiatives that made toys, cribs, children's clothing, power mowers - even aluminum baseball bats - safer. It exercised its recall authority frequently. But with a budget in 1980 of less than $42 million and only 978 employees, it was small (by contrast, the EPA that year had a budget of $5.6 billion and 14,715 employees).

With the inauguration in 1981 of President Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on a platform of government deregulation, it was about to get smaller.

Reagan wanted to abolish the CPSC, but lingering congressional support for the agency stopped him. So Office of Management and Budget director David Stockman in 1981 vowed to strip the agency "down to the bone." Testifying on Capitol Hill, Stockman said that the agency has "embarked on activities inconsistent with sound economic principles and with plain common sense."

Stockman did strip the CPSC, in Reagan's first budget.

Funding was cut to $32 million, and staffing shrank to 649 employees. As Reagan's presidency unfolded, Stockman continued with his ax. Staffing fell below 590 employees in 1985, prompting CPSC commissioner Stuart M. Statler to tell a Washington Post reporter: "In 1981, OMB sent us up the creek without a paddle - this year, they're drilling holes in our canoe."

Statler resigned the next year after another round of budget cuts. "We are at a point right now where we can't effectively target new trouble spots or correct many of those already threatening," the resigning commissioner, appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1979, wrote to Reagan. "As a result, more Americans will be maimed and charred and killed before we can even begin to seek solutions."

In England, meanwhile, the government was moving to improve the safety of mattresses and upholstered furniture containing foam.

THROUGH THE 1990s in the United States, studies were conducted, hearings held, and commissioners came and went, but the CPSC still failed to enact a standard like England's that would require mattresses and upholstered furniture to be resistant to ignition by small open flames.

Home fires involving foam kept killing hundreds of Americans every year. Thousands continued to be hurt. And millions of new products containing foam came into homes, where many of them would remain for generations. Unlike some consumer goods, furniture and beds last.

This was the status quo when Hal Stratton, the agency's current chairman, took office in June of last year.

A former New Mexico attorney general, lawyer Stratton chaired the Rio Grande Foundation, a self-described "free market think tank" that envisions its role as promoting "prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility."

That philosophy concerned some consumer advocates. Ed Mierzwinski, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told the Associated Press that Stratton had "a worrisome anti-regulatory zeal."

But in confirmation testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, Stratton, nominated by President George H. W. Bush, painted his agency's mission as noble.

"I can assure you that with two young daughters, I think of consumer product safety every single day," the new chairman said.

But his agency has no great champion in Washington like the late Senator Magnuson, and it remains tiny by federal standards: from 978 employees in 1980, staffing has shrunk to 471 today, and its budget to oversee more than 15,000 consumer products is just $56.6 million (adjusted for inflation, that is less than half of the CPSC's budget in its founding year). The Pentagon spends almost five times as much for a single F/A-22 fighter jet.

"[The CPSC] has always had an enormous jurisdiction and a very small staff," says Ross E. Cheit, Brown University political science professor and author of a book on safety regulations. "We have more professors at Brown than they have total staff at the CPSC, and their jurisdiction is the entire country and close to 20,000 products.

"Unfortunately, things have only gotten worse under the current administration. The CPSC is outmatched by industry and barely supported by Congress. They are often a scapegoat, but rarely an effective regulator."

THE POLYURETHANE Foam Association (PFA), with executive offices in Wayne, N.J., represents manufacturers of the plastic material. It also sponsors fire-safety education programs for the public, including pages on its Web site, www.pfa.org/firesafe.html, and shares its expertise with government regulators.

"The PFA has worked closely with both state and federal regulatory agencies and the affected industries toward the development of regulations, either voluntary or mandated, that will provide improved fire-safe home-furnishings products in the marketplace," PFA executive director Lou Peters said in a written statement.

"However, improved fire safe products do not mean fireproof or nonburning products. It is important for the consumers to be educated with regard to common-sense approaches to fire safety in the home and to install and maintain fire detection, alarm, and suppression systems."

The PFA's general business meeting this past spring in Arlington, Va., featured CPSC chairman Stratton as keynote speaker. More than 150 representatives of foam manufacturers, raw materials suppliers, and makers of furniture and mattresses attended the meeting; Dow Chemical, BASF and Shell were among the multinational corporations represented.

Before Stratton took the podium, industry speakers acknowledged the tragedy of The Station nightclub fire, in which polyurethane foam used for soundproofing caught fire. No one at the meeting blamed foam for the 100 deaths, but one man noted the absence of sprinklers in the club, the use of pyrotechnics, and the fact that many materials burned. "The role of each product is being assessed," PFA legal counsel Jim McIntyre said.

In his keynote speech, Stratton updated the group on the status of proposed mandatory open-flame regulations for upholstered furniture and mattresses. Any new standards would apply to new products, not the untold millions of foam-filled mattresses and upholstered sofas and chairs in houses across America.

In an interview with The Providence Journal, Stratton would not predict when the CPSC might adopt an open-flame standard for new upholstered furniture: his employees, he said, "are very particular about following the statute to make sure we get the right findings so regulations won't be overturned. It's an extremely complicated process and it takes a lot of time."

Did he have an estimate?

"I mean I could tell you," he said, "but it would be wrong."

Regarding a tough national mattress standard, Stratton said that progress has been affected by the agency's realization that bed clothing - not just mattresses alone - will have to be incorporated in some fashion into new regulations. As numerous studies have shown, burning comforters, mattress pads (some containing polyurethane foam), pillows and the like often ignite mattresses. The Journal test with its purple comforter graphically demonstrated this.

"That process has been slowed up a little bit because of the inclusion of the bed-clothing issue," Stratton said.

Asked if bureaucracy frustrates him, Stratton said: "Of course it does. I get up every day and try to think of ways to make it faster."

CRITICS ACKNOWLEDGE the CPSC's scant resources and the ponderous nature of rule-making - but they note that despite its limitations, the agency is capable of moving swiftly and decisively, even against corporate giants.

Two years ago, the agency sued Wal-Mart for failing to report injuries associated with an exercise machine that the world's largest retailer sold - and in April, Wal-Mart agreed to pay a $750,000 penalty to settle the case. After a similar suit involving nine minor injuries to children from ride-on toy vehicles, Mattel, the world's largest toymaker, agreed to pay a $1.1-million penalty in 2001.

And every year, the CPSC initiates hundreds of recalls involving millions of consumer products.

"Isn't it strange," says Whitney A. Davis, director of the Children's Coalition for Fire Safe Mattresses, "that [with] the CPSC, when one child chokes on a Pokemon ball from a Burger King prize, they will lock down the entire burger industry. But when 600 people a year die . . . they do nothing."

National Association of State Fire Marshals president Donald P. Bliss has spent years advocating tough national flammability standards for upholstered furniture, bedding and mattresses. His anger at the slow pace of rule-making was evident in a taped address he sent to a meeting last October in Aspen, Colo., of the International Sleep Products Association.

"We have a legal and moral responsibility to make sure that mattresses and bed clothing sold and used in this country are safe," Bliss said. "When it comes to these responsibilities, I make no distinction between those of you who make and sell sleep products, and those of us who are sworn to protect the public. We all have the same responsibility.

"We are surrounded by lawyers who will share their interpretations of each sentence in every statute. But at the end of the day, America has no patience with clever legal options when it comes to the safety of a single child. . . . Why is it that we even put up with this nonsense in fire safety? Is one seriously burned child insignificant?"

AS THE JOURNAL TEST approaches the three-minute mark, lab co-owner Joseph Urbas's voice rises with urgency above the crackling.

"Let's extinguish it. Let's extinguish it," he says. The fire, he says later, nearly exceeded the capabilities of his lab.

The crew quickly puts down the blaze with two hoses. But small gobs of foam continue to smoke and sputter.

When the test is over, the bed looks like many others after fires across Rhode Island and around the country.

The metal bed springs remain intact, though charred.

The foam mattress, the box spring and the bedding are nearly gone - fire had converted them into poison gases, superheated air, black smoke and intense heat.

In less than three minutes, a plush, comfortable bed created the kind of energy that kills faster than many people can imagine.

A week later, Urbas completed his report on the fire.

Duration: 170 seconds.

Extent: Most of bed fully involved.

Peak heat release: 4,004 kilowatts - enough to ignite an entire room.

Peak temperature: 1,429 degrees Fahrenheit.

People raised on movies and television shows portraying firefighters heroically battling flames only an arm's-length away don't readily appreciate that a bed can look like a military flamethrower seconds after ignition.

Within just three minutes, a single queen-size bed produced the temperatures that melted and burned the aluminum window casings at LaSalette Shrine. It produced the levels of heat that triggered flashover in the NFPA educational video, and the Westerly, Woonsocket and East Greenwich house fires described in earlier stories. The more it burned, the more deadly carbon monoxide it produced.

The Journal test mattress, which contained 54 percent polyurethane foam, ignited almost immediately and was all but gone in less than three minutes of a nasty, intense burn. The bedding contributed pools of liquid fire.

THE EVENING BEFORE a fire involving upholstered furniture killed four in the house in Westerly - July 17, 2002 - someone at a beach cottage at 22 Rhode Island Ave., Narragansett, was smoking. Somehow, smoldering materials came in contact with a living room couch. Perhaps, investigators theorized, they dropped into a crevice or fell between a cushion and the couch back, where, unnoticed, they continued to smolder.

As the two University of Rhode Island students who had rented the cottage for the summer slept in their first-floor bedrooms, the couch ignited. Investigators believe the couch contained polyurethane foam.

Soon, it was ablaze.

The fire woke Sarah L. Aldridge, 22, of Wethersfield, Conn., shortly before 4:30 a.m. She tried to escape through the front door, but the smoke and heat in the living room were impenetrable. She got out through a window.

Aldridge ran next door and roused James A. Siligato, who owned the cottage. Aldridge told him that her best friend and summer roommate, Jennifer L. Kane, 21, of Brielle, N.J., was still inside. Siligato called 911 and rushed to the cottage with a garden hose.

By now, the heat that had spread to Kane's bedroom was too intense for Siligato to enter. He sprayed water through the window, but a garden hose against apparent flashover conditions was futile. Siligato could hear Kane, speaking incoherently. He yelled at her to escape through the window, but soon she was still.

The firefighters who arrived moments later had to battle the blaze for almost five minutes before they could enter Kane's bedroom.

They found the young woman, a textile merchandising and design senior at URI, on her back between her bed and a dresser. She was not burned: like many victims of home fires, superheated air, smoke and poison gas had killed her.

"The arrival of the state Medical Examiner's investigator necessitated the use of the Narragansett Fire personnel to recover the deceased Ms. Kane from the water-puddled floor and to gently raise her to the top of the bed, where she was placed into the body bag, for removal by the undertaker's personnel," state Fire Marshal Office investigator Arthur Solvang wrote in his report.

"This task is not the most desirable one and was made more onerous by the conditions, such as trying to lift and straddle the bed, to place Ms. Kane into the body bag. This was done with full professionalism and tact."

* RELATED STORY: Serta takes lead with production of safer mattresses A-15

* Watch a video of the burn test, get additional safety tips and read previous stories in the series:


* * *


The charts below represent the results of a Providence Journal test burn conducted by Pacific Fire Laboratory Inc. in Washington state. A queen-size mattress, box spring and a complete set of bedding were burned under a 16-by-16-foot exhaust hood designed to measure the release rates of heat, smoke and various gases. The fire was extinguished at 170 seconds when the heat generation exceeded the capacity of the test calorimeter.

The numbers on the charts correspond to the

numbered pictures below.



* A technician, left, adjusts the propane torch before the burn test begins. Less than three minutes after the torch is lit, right, very little of the bedding remains.

* (1) 0 seconds - a technician ignites the propane burner at the foot of the bed, just an inch away.

* (2) 20 seconds - the propane is shut off; the comforter and bed skirt are already burning well without outside assistance.

* (3) 30 seconds - about half of the end of the bed is aflame, with a second pool of flame burning on the floor.

* (4) 60 seconds - the entire end of the bed is fully involved; it looks like a bonfire.

* (5) 120 seconds - temperatures near the bed rise to more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, creating enough energy to ignite everything in a typical room.

* (6) 170 seconds - the bed becomes such an inferno of flames, smoke and toxic gases that the laboratory director orders the fire extinguished.


Watch the entire three-minute video on projo.com

* * *


Fiscal Inflation adjusted Year to 1995 Employees

1974 $107,502....786

1975 104,680....890

1976 105,968....890

1977 99,988....914

1978 94,574....900

1979 90,139....935

1980 76,477....978

1981 70,651....889

1982 50,796....649

1983 52,082....836

1984 51,705....595

1985 51,697....587

1986 47,906....568

1987 46,418....527

1988 41,352....513

1989 42,402....529

1990 40,982....526

1991 41,523....525

1992 43,667....531

1993 44,402....531

1994 43,484....510

1995 42,431....487

1996 38,801....487

1997 40,355....487

1998 42,074....480

1999 42,994....480

2000 43,158....480

2001 45,038....480

2002 46,762....480

2003 46,575....471

2004 47,899....471



from 1974

to 2004 -55% -40%

SOURCE: President's Budget Appendix

and CPI Index

* * *

* SAFE DISTANCE: The bed in a burn test commissioned by The Providence Journal was fully engulfed in just three minutes.


* IN SECONDS: Lab technician Jerry MacPherson quickly pulls the gas ignition flame away from the burning bed.


* SETTING UP: Before the test burn at the Pacific Fire Laboratory, in Kelso, Wash., July 30, 2003, each item of bedding is carefully weighed.


* FATAL FIRE: Superheated air, smoke and poison gas killed a young woman in this house in Narragansett on July 17, 2002.


FATAL FOAM: PART FOUR - Serta takes lead with production of safer mattresses
Publication Date: October 1, 2003  Page: A-15  Section: News  Edition: All 

SERTA, INC., the nation's second-largest mattress manufacturer, is breaking ranks with most of the industry and unveiling new lines of flame-resistant mattresses.

Beginning with its most expensive product lines and working down, Serta expects all of its new mattresses to be flame-resistant by early next year.

While a few small manufacturers, such as Carolina Mattress Guild, in North Carolina, have been making flame-resistant mattresses, leaders of the country's four largest mattress companies have repeatedly voiced support for improved mattress safety, but then raised questions about costs, regulatory details and deadlines, and the role of bedding in mattress fires.

Just this past summer, Serta President Ed Lilly was quoted as saying he supported revisions in proposed mattress-flammability regulations in California that were less stringent than earlier proposals and extended the deadline for compliance for another year.

A few weeks later, Serta ran advertisements in trade publications stating that because there are 20,000 bedroom fires every year and a death in a bedroom fire every day in the United States, it planned to act sooner rather than later.

"We can begin saving lives now with safer products," said Lilly in a story in Furniture Today. "If you consider that someone in the United States dies in a bedroom fire every day, many of whom are children, we should not wait to offer safer mattresses until regulations are mandatory.

"We believe we have a responsibility to produce safer mattresses as soon as possible," added Lilly. "In terms of safety, the issue of open-flame-resistant mattresses is equally as important to our industry as airbags were to automobiles 10 years ago."

Kally Reynolds, director of marketing at Serta, said that when Lilly welcomed the postponement of the California rules, he was saying the industry as a whole could use the extra time. But Serta was always working toward developing flame-resistant mattresses.

"We're moving ahead now because we think we've found a solution that works and can save lives," she said.

Outside of trade publications, Serta's announcement that it will begin to make safer mattresses has gone unnoticed.

In trade publications, other mattress makers have said they are not planning to follow Serta's actions now. Simmons Co., Sealy Corp. and Spring Air Co. officials all were quoted as saying they are planning to comply with the proposed January 2005 deadline mandating flame-resistant mattresses in California.

Only Sealy responded to the Journal's request for comment. A spokesman said the company is building a major flammability testing facility at its corporate headquarters and plans to have flame-resistant products "long before any deadline."

David Perry, executive editor of Furniture Today, the leading industry trade newspaper, called Serta's decision "bold, courageous action."

"We applaud Serta's move," Perry wrote. "This is how market leaders act. Serta has made a powerful - and wise - leadership statement with its actions."

The decision was also hailed by Whitney A. Davis, the California lawyer who represents burn victims and who organized an advocacy group called the Children's Coalition for Fire Safe Mattresses.

"We believe the new system will save the lives of children and that Serta has made a crucial first step toward implementing a sleep system that will substantially protect consumers from a grave risk of death or tragic injury," Davis said.

"The Children's Coalition has yet to confirm Serta's claims of mattress fire safety through independent testing of their new models," he added. "However, we have received basic information on the new techniques used by Serta. While those techniques fall behind the scientific state of the art, they reflect a quantum leap in protection beyond the current manufacturing practices of the mattress industry."

"We've been working on this for three years," said Al Klancnik, a Serta vice president and an engineer in charge of developing the new product lines.

"It kind of shook up the rest of the industry," he said. "They're trying to wait, and we're saying why wait?"

Klancnik is president of the industry's Sleep Products Safety Council, which promotes mattress safety issues.

Serta will use FireBlocker, a proprietary blend of natural and synthetic fibers in the outer layers of its mattresses and box springs.

"Everything is burnable," Klancnik said. "This works by blocking the flames and giving significantly more time for people to get out."

The fire-resistant capabilities will be offered first in Serta's high-end mattresses in the next few weeks, according to Klancnik.

He said Serta is getting a mixed reaction from furniture stores.

"Retailers are either neutral or they're positive - it's another reason to buy a product today," he said.

He also minimized the claims of some manufacturers who said mandating flame resistance would dramatically increase the costs of mattresses.

"Certainly there is a cost addition to putting this in, but if you skillfully design your beds, you can minimize the cost impact," Klancnik said. "We're not giving up any important price points on these mattresses."

Kally Reynolds, head of marketing at Serta, said the company is educating retailers now about the new mattresses and plans to launch a "consumer campaign" after the Fall International Home Furnishings Market trade show in High Point, N.C., later this month.

Serta, best known to the public for its advertising campaign featuring animated sheep, is owned by eight independent licensees who run separate marketing, manufacturing and sales operations in 27 factories in the United States as well as 31 elsewhere in the world. Its Perfect Sleeper line is the country's best-selling premium mattress.

Based in Illinois, the company has 4,800 employees and $870 million in sales.

It's the number-one supplier to hotels and motels.

Sealy is the number-one mattress retailer in the country. It employs 6,480 people and sells through more than 7,000 retailers and operates 30 factories around the world. Its labels also include Barrett and Stearns & Foster.

Simmons is the number-three mattress maker, employing 2,900 people and selling through nearly 8,000 retail outlets. Its labels include Beautyrest, Deep Sleep, DreamScapes and Olympic Queen.

Spring Air, the number-four mattress maker, employs 1,600 people and produces specialty mattresses featuring asthma and allergy sensitive fabrics. Its labels include Back Supporter, Four Seasons and Comfort Caress Collection.

In a recent column, Perry, of Furniture Today, exhorted the industry to follow Serta's lead.

"Too many in our industry see flammability as a negative," Perry wrote. "Talking about fires - even reducing fires - will only alarm consumers, these folks say. Furthermore, there is a widespread feeling that consumers will not pay for safer mattresses.

"Well, it's our job as an industry to change that feeling, if it's indeed held by most consumers. That's called marketing, and we are very good at it in the mattress industry. There is absolutely no reason not to use our marketing skills to turn improved fire safety into a positive."