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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

News Release

For Immediate Release

Thursday, January 31, 2019
Contact: SA/PIO Charlene Hennessy

Fire Investigation Completed on Fatal Fire in West Chester, PA

PHILADELPHIA -The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Philadelphia Field Division and the Chester County Fire Marshal's Office announced today a conclusion to the origin and cause investigation into the fatal fire that occurred on November 16, 2017 at the Barclay Friends Senior Center, located at 700 North Franklin Street in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

On November 16, 2017, at approximately 10:45 p.m., first responders from West Chester Fire and Police Departments, as well as numerous surrounding fire departments in the area, arrived on scene shortly after the first call was made to 911 and found a large portion of the Woolman building to be fully involved with fire upon arrival. The responding police officers and fire departments acted swiftly in assisting with the evacuation of 152 residents and staff members and then turned efforts to fighting the fire.

When investigators arrived on scene, the main sprinkler valve was found in the off position.  Despite extensive testing and interviews, investigators were unable to determine definitively when the valve was turned off.  Based on the totality of the investigation, it is the belief of the investigators that it was off during the fire.

Special Agents from ATF's Philadelphia Field Division and National Response Team (NRT), were activated to respond to the 5-alarm fire at the Barclay Friends Senior Assisted Living Center.  ATF is the federal agency with jurisdiction, expertise and resources to investigate large-scale complex fire and explosives scenes. The NRT is composed of veteran special agents and technical personnel, to include certified fire investigators, certified explosives specialists, fire protection engineers, chemists, forensic mappers and other highly specialized and experienced fire investigators.

The fire investigation was a collaborative effort and worked in coordination with the Chester County District Attorney's Office, Chester County Fire Marshal's Office, Pennsylvania State Police, West Chester Police Department, Chester County Sheriffs Office and Chester County Department of Emergency Services.



Origin & Cause

Based on the scene examination and witness statements, the area of origin of the fire was determined to have been in the rear garden room – which was located on the outdoor patio, under the Woolman building overhang. The exact point of origin is unknown due to the extensive damage caused by the fire.

According to initial fire alarm data and witnesses, the smoke and fire alarms acted as designed with audible sirens and strobes activating upon smoke impingement on the smoke detectors within the garden room, causing the fire doors to shut.  Residents and staff reported hearing these alarms and quickly started to evacuate the building.

Based on the totality of the investigation, it is the belief of the investigators that due to the excessive winds the night of November 16, 2017, the flammability of the vinyl siding on the building, and lack of exterior sprinklers (not currently required by code), the fire was able to intensify and spread rapidly to the roof and other parts of the building.

After more than 300 interviews, a systematic fire-scene examination and re-creation, the review of witness photos, videos and observations, as well as extensive scientific testing at the ATF Fire Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, the cause of the fire has been ruled "undetermined."

At this time, there is no indication that the fire was intentionally set.

"Investigating a fire of this size is truly a team effort," said ATF Philadelphia Field Division Special Agent in Charge, Donald Robinson.  "We appreciate the dedication of our personnel as well as all of the state and local partners who worked tirelessly to thoroughly investigate this fire in an attempt to determine the fire's origin and cause."


Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan stated, “From the roaring flames of that night, to the grim months of investigation that followed, we have never forgotten the four Chester County citizens who died in that fire.  Working together, we exhausted every avenue of investigation possible.  We appreciate the heroism of the first firefighters on the scene as they saved countless lives, the diligent efforts of ATF and the Fire Marshal’s Office in the investigation, and the patience and fortitude of the victims’ families as this investigation concluded.”

West Chester Police Chief Scott Bohn stated, “Five West Chester uniformed officers were the first to arrive on scene, entered the building without any protective equipment and evacuated many residents. These officers acted heroically. I am grateful to all of our first responders, police/fire/EMS, as well as the community response that evening. My thoughts and prayers remain with those who lost their lives and those impacted by this tragic event.”


Chester County Fire Marshal John Weer stated, "Because of the extensive efforts of the West Chester Fire Department, many lives were saved that night. With the intensity of this fire prior to notification, many heroic efforts were carried out.

Heavy hearts are with these men and women for the losses of life and our sincere thoughts are with their families.

It is because of the training and daily working relationship of agencies federally, state and locally that this investigation was conducted as a team effort. This commitment in Chester County has proven that teamwork on all levels proves that working together provides the best for our residents.

With the overall magnitude of this fire investigation, the knowledge and assistance from the ATF both locally and nationally was a huge aid to the overall investigation of this tragic fire."

The families of the four elderly citizens who died in the fire were previously advised in person about the results of this investigation and had the opportunity to discuss the event with the investigators.  All of the agencies involved have pledged to continue assisting these families with any information they need.



Anyone having information regarding this fire should call the ATF 2417 hotline at 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888- 283-3473), email: A (l ink sends e-mail) or submit a tip anonymously by using the Reportlt App on your mobile phone.

More information about ATF's fire investigation expertise or the NRT can be found at







Philadelphia Field Division