Tragic end: Investigation complete in drummer Gilmore's death
Eight months after beloved musician Johnny Gilmore perished in a house fire, the official investigation is complete: the blaze was accidental and likely ignited by a dropped or improperly discarded cigarette. Gilmore died of smoke inhalation, and authorities now cite a high blood alcohol content as a contributing factor in his death. But the answer to one question remains elusive: Could a different type of smoke detector have saved him?
The 45-year-old drummer was home alone in the Green Leaf Townhouses in midtown on Fifth Street, SW on Thursday, October 22, when a smoldering fire ignited in his bedroom. His then 75-year-old father, Curtis Gilmore, with whom the musician lived, arrived home right after 9pm to find smoke emerging from his son's locked bedroom and called 911. By the time firefighters arrived five minutes later, however, the room had "flashed over"–- as the temperature reached 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and materials spontaneously combusted–- and the elder Gilmore, whom the Hook was unable to interview, was injured attempting to break down the door to reach his son. He was treated for smoke inhalation and burns and released from the hospital that night.
In the days following the fire, as musicians and friends mourned Gilmore, whom music critic and musician Stephen Barling called "the best musician I've ever met in my life," Charlottesville Fire investigators revealed that every one of the ionization smoke detectors in the nine-unit townhouse development where Gilmore lived had been disabled.
The landlord, Ampy Smith, initially talked of his frustration that tenants allegedly disabled the ionization units due to false alarms originating with kitchen smoke. Smith did not return the Hook's call for this article, but as the Hook has previously reported, ionization detectors are more prone to false alarms than photoelectric detectors. In one Alaskan study, ionization detectors were eight times more likely to be disabled than photoelectrics due to false alarms.
In addition, ionization detectors–- the type found in more than 90 percent of American homes–- typically fail to detect smoke from smoldering fires and will sound only when the first actual flames appear, potentially leaving victims exposed for hours to toxic gases including carbon monoxide and cyanide prior to the flaming fire.
That appears to have been the case with Gilmore, who, according to Charlottesville Police Detective Sergeant Steve Dillon, had a "large amount" of carbon monoxide in his blood–- 45 percent–- coupled with a .38 BAC, or blood alcohol content, nearly five times the legal driving limit.
But while such a significant alcohol level would render most people unconscious, and might even be life threatening, it's not always the case, says toxicologist Chris Holstege, director of the Blue Ridge Poison Control Center, who says he's seen individuals still conscious and ambulatory at levels as high as .5.
"It depends on their tolerance," says Holstege, who notes that the coupling of a high BAC and a high level of carbon monoxide most likely means Gilmore was fully unconscious at the time of his death.
Charlottesville Fire Marshal W.A. Hogsten agrees, and says Gilmore most likely died well before the room flashed over because of the carbon monoxide, which, when concentrated enough, causes death within a minute as the body is deprived of oxygen. "He might not have ever known," says Hogsten.
At a press conference following Gilmore's death, Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner publicly acknowledged for the first time the flaws in ionization-only detectors–- which rely on radioactive material–- and urged the public to invest in combination smoke detectors, which employ both photoelectric and ionization technology.
While Werner and the International Association of Fire Chiefs endorse combination detectors–- the type distributed through the City's free detector program–- as the best protection against both types of fire, critics and other fire organizations, including the International Association of Fire Fighters, cite combination detectors' susceptibility to false alarms as a potentially lethal inducement for a homeowner, renter, or guest to disable what could have been a life-saving device.
While there is no way to know if Gilmore could have responded to an earlier alert–- or if a neighbor might have heard it and called 911 before he perished–- Hogsten says he hopes tragedies like Gilmore's death will remind everyone of the importance of smoke detectors. And he praises his department's response times and ability to suppress a blaze.
"The one thing we can't control," says Hogsten, "is the time from when the fire starts until someone notifies us. The only intermediary is smoke detectors."
That may not be enough, according to the International Association of Firefighters which urges everyone, "Don’t just change your batteries– change your smoke detector, too," a campaign to move away from ionization detectors. Several Charlottesville retailers including Martin Hardware on Preston Avenue now stock photoelectric-only detectors.