BY TRACEY DUGUAY
The fire that claimed the life of well-known disabled activist Joanne Nother was started by a candle, not a malfunction in her power wheelchair, as was speculated in the days following her tragic death.
Nother, who lived in New Sudbury, was found burned to death in her home on Feb. 28. Her personal support worker called 911 after arriving at Nother's house at 3:30 pm and finding it filled with thick black smoke.
While refusing to comment on the cause of the blaze, Greater Sudbury deputy fire chief Marc Leduc confirmed at the time "all the damage was
smoke damage. There is no structural damage to the home."
The lack of damage to the house and the fact Nother was a non-smoker led to speculation the fire was a result of an electrical malfunction in her Invacare Storm TDX5 wheelchair.
Nother's case was turned over to the Ontario Coroner's Office, which is expected to announce the details of its nine-month investigation next week.
However, a source familiar with the case, confirmed it was a candle that sparked the deadly sequence of events leading up to her death.
After learning the source of the fire, Northern Life tracked down an adverse event report, posted in a United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) database, which contained information about the Nother investigation.
While the report doesn't identify her specifically, Gretchen Schuler, director of litigation management for Invacare Corp., confirmed Nother's identity.
Invacare is mandated by the FDA to report all adverse incidents resulting in serious injury or death that involve any of its products, regardless of whether the circumstances are initially suspected to be product or user-related.
Ontario fire officials contacted the wheelchair manufacturing company on March 1, just a few days after Nother's death.
According to the report filed by the company, local fire investigators found a candleholder and a "waxy substance" between Nother's feet on the footrest of her wheelchair.
At this time, it's not known how the candle ended up on the footrest of the wheelchair. Confined to a wheelchair because of the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis, Nother's personal support worker said the disabled woman couldn't have placed it there herself.
With no dexterity in one hand and limited movement in the other, the worker said the likely scenario is Nother accidentally knocked the candle off a table after she lit it and it landed on the footrest, possibly setting her clothes or wheelchair seat on fire.
This hypothesis matches the details in the Invacare report, which states the badly burned body of Nother was found in the bathroom/laundry room area of the house.
The water in the sink was running and there was a phone cord leading from the kitchen into the room, leading investigators to believe she may have tried to call for help.
"The scene conditions indicate with a high degree of certainty that the user drove the chair to the sink and in fact turned on the water in an attempt to extinguish the fire."
There was major burning and melting on the seating area of Nother's wheelchair, especially on the right rear and back of the seat. As well, there was "heavy damage" in the centre front of the seat and burn patterns extending upwards from the footrest.
?While seating cushion manufactuer/materials could not be determined, the seat bottom construction is consistent with a pressure relief type which is covered with a vinyl-based outershell. Seat was a foam-based, multi-layered product,? states the report.
Schuler says the seating area of Nother?s wheelchair wasn?t an Invacare product, but rather an after-market product.
As the fire progressed, it damaged the wiring and electrical components of the wheelchair rendering it inoperable, leaving Nother stranded in the bathroom and unable to save herself.
By the time officials arrived at the house, the "main fire involving the user/chair had self-extinguished," leaving only a small fire confined to an area on top of the washer and dryer.
?Considering the government investigator?s verbal report regarding the candleholder and waxy substance that were found, it is highly likely and probable that the fire was caused by accidental ignition of the user?s clothing on the exposed flame of the candle. There is no evidence that the
Invacare device malfunctioned in any way,? the report concludes.
Nother's friend Rachel Proulx, who also uses an Invacare Storm TDX5 wheelchair for mobility, says she's somewhat relieved to find out the fire wasn't started by an electrical malfunction.
However, the horrific details of her friend's death still leave her questionning the safety of power wheelchairs.
"I'm still bothered by the fact that everything I'm sitting on is flammable," she said.
Schuler says Invacare, the self-professed "global leader" in the $6-billion home medical product industry, adheres to rigid standards with regards to flammability.
"Every time we work on a design of a product we make an attempt to improve it. There's industry standards, etc., etc., but flamability is always a concern and that's something we take very seriously," Schuler says.
Given the fact there are many documented cases of fire-related wheelchair deaths and injuries, some product-related, and other "freak" accidents like Nother's, Proulx's fears aren't entirely unfounded.
Last November in British Columbia, a 28-year-old wheelchair-bound man named Sam Amaral died as a result of a fire started in his Invacare Storm Arrow wheelchair.
Although this incident is still under investigation by the B.C. Coroner's Office, Sandy Barabe, the coroner in charge of Amaral's case, verified a component in the wheelchair caught fire leading to his death.
"I can confirm the wheelchair was the source of the fire," said Barabe. "But, it's not appropriate to say it was a defect...It's not truly a defect the way others were defects. It's a whole series of different conditions resulting in the fire."
She can't release specific details yet, but implied the age of the chair also played a part in the fatal fire.
The defects Barabe referred to relate back to the controversy surrounding Invacare a few years back when the company admitted fault in the fire-related deaths of two people.
"We deeply regret the two deaths that occurred several years ago related to our product design," stated Invacare chairman and chief executive officer A. Malachi Mixon III, in a press release posted on the company's website in 2002.
The company issued a massive field correction notice (similar to a product recall) after discovering a defect relating to the battery box harness and charger harness it used in its power wheelchair line. The correction notice affected thousands of wheelchair users.
Invacare later settled a $7-million lawsuit after it was alleged the same faulty wiring problem short-circuited the battery charger in an Arizona woman's wheelchair, resulting in second and third-degree burns to over 25 percent of her body.
"My legs and arms were on fire and my hair was burning," said the woman, in an article that ran in a FDA publication. "And from the burns, my skin is so thin you can rub it off."
After the settlement was announced, a spokesperson for Invacare emphasized the company wasn't admitting fault in this case, just following the advice of its insurer.
While Invacare was busy defending its products in the United States, thousands of miles away in Australia, there was another coroner's inquest underway.
This investigation centred on the 1999 death of 34-year-old Sandra Lee Rothwell.
To be continued...Read Northern Life's Wednesday edition for the second part of this three-part special series.