Anderson, Mo. An early morning fire broke out in a group home for the elderly and mentally ill Monday, killing 10 people and injuring two dozen others in a blaze that the governor said was being treated as a crime.
The blaze reduced the privately run Anderson Guest House to a skeleton of cinder blocks and stunned this rural community of about 1,800 people tucked in the Ozark hills of southwest Missouri.
Gov. Matt Blunt said investigators were treating the fire as suspicious.
"We're not saying it is definitely a crime scene, but we are treating it as if it is and trying to determine if the fire was set by somebody who had a nefarious motive," Blunt said.
The home had 32 residents and two employees inside when the fire was reported around 1 a.m. The dead ranged in age from early 20s to elderly. Another 18 people were taken to hospitals, and six were treated at the scene, authorities said.
One of the dead was a worker in the home, and the other nine were residents, Blunt said. Authorities did not plan to release names until today because relatives of two victims hadn't yet been notified.
Officials refused to say how the victims died or whether they had any warning. The home had fire alarms but no sprinklers.
Asked whether two staff members were enough to look after 32 residents, Blunt said that was up to state health officials.
"Again, it was late at night," the governor said. "That would impact to some degree the amount of care that is necessary."
Neighbor Steven Spears, 47, saw the blaze erupt through security cameras posted outside his home.
"I saw the front door blow open with fire," Spears said. "I know most of them (the residents). I've talked to all of them at one time or another. It still hasn't hit me."
The home is operated by Joplin River of Life Ministries Inc. Owner Robert Dupont issued a statement expressing sadness and saying all displaced residents were being cared for with the help of local agencies.
"This is a very tragic situation that has saddened all of us at Joplin River of Life Ministries," he said.
At the company's offices in Joplin, investigators interviewed Dupont and group home residents, including some survivors. A ministries employee said Dupont was unavailable for further comment.
One person was in serious condition at Joplin Hospital. All the other survivors who went to area hospitals were either in good or fair condition, or had been treated and released.
Authorities were trying to determine whether the blaze was linked to a smaller fire at the facility Saturday morning, said Assistant Fire Marshal Greg Carrell. No one was injured in the first fire, which was still under investigation when the second blaze began.
Inspectors from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which licenses the facility, found some deficiencies at the home in March, but none related to fire safety.
The home is a residential care center licensed by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The facility also has a license from the state Department of Mental Health that allowed mentally ill residents to live at the home and receive treatment elsewhere.
Monday's blaze was one of the worst fires at a health care facility since 2003, when a patient suffering from dementia and multiple sclerosis, set fire to her bed and burned down a care center in Hartford, Conn., killing 16 residents. Six months later, in September 2003, a fire killed 15 patients in Nashville, Tenn.
Recently, the federal agency that oversees the safety of nursing homes asked for comments about a proposal to require all nursing homes to have comprehensive sprinkler systems. The rule would not address group homes like the one in Anderson because such facilities are not subject to the same federal oversight.