by Jennifer Hiller and John Tedesco
All content (c) San Antonio Express-News
The day after a towering retaining wall collapsed in a Northwest Side neighborhood, officials with Centex Homes told anxious residents that the San Antonio Fire Department was leaving the neighborhood because the danger had ended.
But at the same time, Centex was hiring off-duty firefighters to monitor the scene because of the “high risk nature of the work,” according to a city official.
The San Antonio Express-News received a video of the entire private meeting on Jan. 25 at a Drury Inn & Suites between Centex and residents of Rivermist and The Hills of Rivermist, filmed by an attendee. It shows Centex Homes’ Trey Marsh telling scores of families, “They don’t feel like there’s a threat anymore based on the work that we’ve done since this whole deal started.”
But city officials weren’t invited to the meeting. And when they later learned what Centex said, officials disputed the claim that city firefighters were departing, and that the neighborhood had been deemed safe.
“That’s a pretty bold statement for them to make,” Assistant City Manager Erik Walsh wrote colleagues at City Hall on Jan. 25 in an e-mail. Walsh pointed out that Centex was actually hiring off-duty technical rescue firefighters to stand by at the scene.
The Express-News also obtained city e-mails about the retaining wall failure under the Texas Public Information Act.
The e-mails and video offer a behind-the-scenes look at the initial chaotic days of the collapse, when residents were clamoring for clear answers but instead received incorrect information from Centex.
Company officials did not respond to interview requests. Instead, Centex released a written statement pointing out most residents were allowed to return to their homes after the initial evacuation, and those houses were out of harm’s way.
“Centex’s first priority is to ensure the ongoing safety and well-being of those residents whose homes were directly impacted by the event,” the statement reads.
On Jan. 24, a retaining wall of stone and mortar split open as gaping rifts scarred the earth on the hill behind it. Authorities evacuated 91 homes. Heavy rains were forecast that week, and some wondered if the hill was still a threat.
People who gathered in a packed hotel conference room the next night wanted answers from Centex, the video shows.
“Our kids live there,” one resident said at the meeting. “They play in the street. They go out. How can we be safe?”
The meeting turned rancorous at times. One man told Centex employees: “I tell you what: You go to my house and sleep tonight, and I’ll go to your house.”
During the 46-minute meeting, Centex officials frequently told residents that firefighters were leaving the neighborhood because it was safe.
“They would not have pulled out if they thought that this was still a dangerous situation,” said Damon Lyles, president of Centex and its parent company, Pulte Homes in San Antonio.
Marsh said: “What I’m trying to share with you is that the fire department believes that we have achieved a safe situation and they are no longer needed.”
To resident Carlos Pena, it sounded like the danger had passed. “They made it seem like it wasn’t a huge threat anymore,” Pena said. He remains evacuated from his home and is living in a hotel with his wife and three children.
No city officials were invited to the session. But Jill DeYoung, chief of staff for City Councilman Reed Williams, whose district includes Rivermist, managed to get inside.
DeYoung said the comments about the departure of the fire department surprised her.
“That was something that was said by Centex that was not the case at all,” DeYoung said.
DeYoung said she called Williams after the meeting, who in turn called City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
DeYoung also spoke with Walsh, an assistant city manager who oversees the police and fire departments. After learning what was discussed at the meeting, Walsh e-mailed T.C. Broadnax, an assistant city manager who oversees development issues, and Roderick Sanchez, the director of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department.
“Rod, T.C.: is there an official determination about safety that DSD (Development Services Department) will make?” Walsh asked in the e-mail. He wrote that Centex had made a “bold” claim, and he pointed out the company had hired off-duty firefighters.
A spokeswoman for Centex later told the Express-News the firefighters were hired on Jan. 26, a day after the meeting. But according to an e-mail written on Jan. 25 by Assistant Fire Chief David Coatney, Centex had asked members of the Fire Department’s Technical Response Team to stay “on-site during the stabilization work because of the high risk nature of the work.”
Walsh, Broadnax and Sanchez said the comments by Centex Homes didn’t burn bridges between the home builder and the city. But it did create a situation in which the city had to meet with Centex and residents to clear up confusion about who exactly was responsible for declaring the neighborhood safe.
“If anybody was going to deem the area or the homes safe, that would be the city, not the builder,” Walsh said in an interview.
Williams, who first visited the site with other city officials when the land started moving Jan. 24, said the site may have been stabilized by the time Centex met with homeowners, but the threat was far from resolved. “We had police on-site. We had emergency people still watching it,” Williams said.
On Jan. 26, a day after Centex claimed the danger had passed, Development Services yanked the certificates of occupancy for 25 homes near the retaining wall. The city later declared that two more homes were uninhabitable – a status that has not changed.