Drummer lost: Fire victim was Johnny Gilmore
Acclaimed local drummer Johnny Gilmore has died in a fire, and his father was hospitalized after the blaze erupted Thursday night in the musician's room at the Green Leaf Townhouses in midtown on Fifth Street, SW.
"I was talking to him an hour or an hour and a half before it happened," says Rougemont Avenue resident Kenneth Jackson, who was visiting his sister in the unit adjacent to Gilmore's in the nine-unit apartment complex. "He was sitting on the wall, and we were talking about music."
Music was the 45-year-old's life, say those who heard the Johnny Gilmore Trio, Soko, and other artists, such as Corey Harris, with whom he drummed.
"Everybody who's anybody musically in this town played with Johnny Gilmore," says singer-songwriter William Walter, who recently collaborated with him and Tucker Rogers on a live album called Rough Around the Edges.
"Johnny Gilmore's the best musician I've ever met in my life," enthused Charlottesville music critic Stephen Barling in a 2006 round-table. "And that's the truth."
"I went down to Miller's last night, and everyone was just staggering around," Barling says Friday morning. "I'm listening to Soko right now, where Johnny's playing with LeRoi,"– that's LeRoi Moore, the late saxophonist for Dave Matthews Band.
With musical talent, however, came a sort of semi-seclusion that made it hard for musicians and others to reach Gilmore at times.
The landlord at the complex where Gilmore lived with his father, Curtis, says that the younger Gilmore's bedroom door was often locked.
"We never could get in his room," says landlord Ampy Smith, mentioning an effort just a day earlier to gain access to measure for window blinds.
And indeed, when the elder Gilmore arrived home the night of the fire, according to Charlottesville fire officials, he smelled smoke and rushed upstairs only to find his son's room locked.
His efforts to break down the door failed, explained Charlottesville Fire Marshal W.A. Hogsten at an October 23 press conference, and by the time firefighters arrived on the scene about five minutes after the 9:25pm 911 call came in, the room had already "flashed over," a condition in which the temperature has risen so high (typically 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit) that material suddenly combusts.
Three early-arriving police officers attempted to reach the room to rescue Gilmore but were turned back by smoke and heat. One was treated and released for smoke inhalation at UVA hospital. Curtis Gilmore, 73, was also treated for smoke inhalation and released the same night.
"This is a tragedy," says landlord Smith. "Both of them are really nice people."
Hogsten says the smoke detector in Gilmore's unit was in an upstairs hallway and appeared to be without a battery. Smith says he's gotten frustrated that tenants sometimes disable the units due to false alarms originating with kitchen smoke– and in fact, firefighters discovered that every single smoke detector present in the 9-unit apartment complex had been disabled or removed.
According to a pair of summer 2008 tests conducted by local fire departments and this newspaper, the most common type of detector, ionization, tends to false alarm eight times more frequently than the competing technology, but fails to promptly detect smoldering fires, the kind most likely to kill people while they sleep.
While Hogsten says it's too soon to be certain what killed Gilmore, the initial investigation suggests it was an accidental fire, and cigarettes– a common cause of smoldering fires– were present in the room.
"This did not need to happen," said Fire Chief Werner, who at today's press conference announced a "call to action" for landlords, homeowners, neighborhood associations, and service organizations to help ensure that every residence in the city is equipped with a smoke detector. And for the first time, Werner made clear that ionization-only detectors– the kind in most homes– are simply not sufficient.
"We think you need to go to the next step and add a dual detector," said Werner, who has maintained his support for the combination technology even as several states have changed their laws in favor of photoelectric-only detectors, and various fire safety organizations have also embraced the technology for its avoidance of false alarms.
Werner says Gilmore's death is a reminder to the fire department that even with a free smoke detector program, "We have more to do."
And, perhaps, that will be one more piece of Gilmore's legacy– one those who knew him say will be large.
"His God-given talent and his passion shouldn't pass Charlottesville by quietly," says Charlottesville musician William Walter. "There will never be another Johnny Gilmore."
–last updated 4:33pm (with info from press conference, details on discovery of the fire)
–updated 2:07pm (with Gilmore's age)