Apartment building in flames, tenants wonder why they didn’t wake up sooner

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Stephanie Buonfiglio and Christian Regalo had just a couple of bags to their names. Most of them were hastily piled against a corner of their hotel suite or shoved into the lone closet next to their queen bed. The studio-style room was comfortable, but sterile. The scent of fresh linens and bleach that normally accompanied the view had long left.

For 19 days, the couple had called the room home, along with their roommate who had made himself scarce for the interview. The three adults had rarely been out, only leaving to take the dog out, buy food or visit the site of their old home.

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That home, a two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a nearby complex, was a smoldering ruin. A fire tore through it in the middle of the night in late April, forever searing memories into their minds that were difficult to shake.

“It was just so hard to breathe,” Regalo recalled. “They were laying on the balcony floor -- through the holes of the balcony gasping for air.”

The Isles at East Millenia fire gained national attention for heroic actions by a group of deputies who climbed the building’s balconies to rescue a terrified one-year-old. Buonfiglio and Regalo said they occupied the next balcony over. Buonfiglio had woken Regalo, who quickly figured out the fire was about to engulf their unit before leading the others onto the balcony to wait to be rescued.

They said they distinctly remembered the time they woke up: 4:30 a.m., a full 19 minutes after Orange County Fire Rescue’s incident report showed first responders were alerted to the blaze and several minutes after the first fire trucks rolled into the parking lot.

They said it wasn’t any sort of alarm that woke them up, but them suffocating underneath the heavy smoke. Per their recollection, the smoke detectors in their unit – which they had moved to three weeks before – weren’t working.

“We should have been woken up to fire alarms, not to smoke, especially with the amount of smoke that was coming through from the first floor to the third floor,” Regalo said, bitterly. Buonfiglio added that they had been told their detector had been checked a month before their move-in to ensure it was in working order, but the duo had not tested it themselves.

WFTV’s own videos and body camera footage from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office both feature faint, but distinct beeping in the early minutes of the fire. Alarms had been set off somewhere within the building, but it was unclear what type they were or what units were alerted. The OCFR incident report mentioned that detectors had alerted occupants to the fire, but did not give any details.

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The incident report showed the building was equipped with smoke detectors, but not a sprinkler system to suppress anything that might erupt in the structure. The report also wasn’t clear about whether all of the detectors were working, though officials said it was something they’d look into.

Documents dating back to 2018 detailed a history of failed fire inspections at the complex, which was cited for various issues, including problems with buildings’ alarm systems. Several times, inspectors detailed, they were called out because the systems weren’t inspected enough, weren’t working properly or were causing false alarms. The complex was forced to pay a fee after one such call.

The OCFR incident report did not mention any problems with the building’s alarm system during the night of the fire.

WFTV reached out several times over the course of two weeks to see if the property management company would answer questions or provide context and explanations about the complex’s smoke detectors, fire alarms and failed inspections. None of the messages generated a response.

Independent property managers said fire inspections were easier to pass than a restaurant health code inspection, which are notorious for dinging kitchens for the smallest slip-ups. Orange County in particular was considered to be an easier inspection to pull through than smaller municipalities, as long as companies were proactive in maintaining their systems, the managers said.

When contacted for comment, an OCFR spokeswoman said it depended on the facility.

“Apartment buildings are considered ‘High’ risk occupancies and require annual fire inspections. However, depending on the building, the life safety systems installed may require more frequent maintenance,” she said. “As for the pass or failure questions, it is all-over-the-board. Some apartments pass while others have continual and chronic violations.”

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During their interview, Buonfiglio and Regalo mentioned other issues with the way their valuables were being handled since the fire, especially any remains of their three pets that did not survive. They’ve since managed to find a house to rent that allowed them to move out of their hotel room to a more appropriate environment, and have set up a GoFundMe to allow them to rebuild their lives.

“I feel like we’re on the way up,” Regalo said. “There’s still a part of me that wants to say that, [but] it just feels so low.”

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