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No foul play suspected in death of man found in apartment 2.5 months after fire

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, June 11, 2013, at 11:46 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 11, 2013, at 8:32 p.m.

Investigators have ruled out foul play in the death of a Wichita man whose body was found in his apartment 2.5 months after the residence was damaged by fire.

Louis Cervantes, 65, died of smoke inhalation, an autopsy report released this week shows. He sustained burns to his head, the report said, but had no other injuries. There were no drugs or alcohol in his system.

The incident has prompted the Wichita Fire Department to make some short-term changes to the way it searches buildings that have been damaged by fire and some long-term changes in the way it looks at the issue of compulsive hoarding.

Cervantes’ body was discovered March 12 by workers who were cleaning the apartment at Southfield Apartments, 3161 S. George Washington Blvd. The fire, which occurred on the afternoon of Dec. 27, caused an estimated $15,000 damage and was confined to the area around a space heater and extension cord. The cause was listed as accidental.

Neighbors at the scene told firefighters they hadn’t seen Cervantes for two or three months, and some thought he had left the country. A search and rescue team went through the apartment, which was cluttered with boxes, videotapes and clothes, but did not find Cervantes’ body under several layers of clothing.

Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said Cervantes had relatives in the Chicago area but his wife and children were not in the United States when the fire occurred.

Since the discovery of Cervantes’ body, Crisp said, fire supervisors have been asked to stress to their crews the importance of conducting an extensive “second search” after every fire. A “primary search” for fire victims is typically conducted as soon as firefighters arrive at the scene of a fire and usually while a fire is still burning. A secondary search is conducted after the fire is put out.

“It’s a painstaking search of everything to make sure there isn’t somebody or something of importance missing,” Crisp said. “A primary search is something that needs to be done quickly. A secondary search isn’t something that necessarily has to be done urgently.”

Thermal imaging cameras are good tools to use during a secondary search, Crisp said, but they should not be seen as a substitute for thorough searching. A thermal imaging camera was used after the Dec. 27 fire, he said, but the camera apparently wasn’t able to penetrate the pile of clothing that covered Cervantes’ body.

Crisp said no firefighters were disciplined because of the incident.

“Nobody showed up for work that day with intention of missing something like this,” he said. “What happened happened. We need to look at what we can do to prevent it from happening in the future.”

In the long term, Crisp said, the department is modifying its training and education programs to stress the dangers of “excessive storage conditions” — a term widely known as hoarding.

Crisp said Cervantes’ apartment was stacked to “bed level” with clothes, videotapes, boxes and other clutter. He said Cervantes apparently tried to escape the smoke by crawling under a pile of clothes in the bedroom.

“We need to talk about the dangers of excessive storage conditions, not only for residents but for firefighters too,” he said.

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com.

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