TRENTON, N.J. -- Exits secured with chains and locks were but some of the problems firefighters found with an Irvington motel in the months leading up to a fire that left three people dead, authorities said.
Locked exits were a recurring problem at the Irvington Motor Lodge, Fire Capt. Joseph Giamella said Tuesday. He would not disclose whether exits were blocked during Sunday's fire.
The fire started at about 10:30 a.m. on a mattress in a first-floor room in the building's rear and quickly filled the building with thick smoke.
Three people, a man and two women, died from smoke inhalation. Authorities have identified two people - Todd Day, 40, of Irvington, and Kimberly L. Jones, 36, of East Orange. The third person remained unidentified by authorities on Tuesday.
The Essex County Prosecutor's Office is investigating not only the cause of the fire, but also whether the owners knowingly endangered the safety of their guests.
The 80-room motel - a low-cost place to stay for people who lost their homes - was often a problem for township fire officials, Giamella said.
The state Division of Fire and Safety took over fire inspections at the motel in the mid-1990s, but Giamella said the department found itself still issuing citations because of frequent false alarms at the motel, some set off by people smoking crack cocaine.
Last May, Giamella sent a letter to the fire safety division, asking it to transfer inspection duties back to the local fire department. Giamella said the letter went unanswered.
The month before, Giamella persuaded the motel owners to install a new $10,000 fire alarm system, which he said worked on Sunday.
But the exits posed another problem. In both February and April, the motel was cited because the exit doors had chains and locks, which firefighters cut off both times. The owners were fined $2,000 after the second offense.
As a crowd of people gathered outside the motel after Sunday's fire, there was talk that exits were again chained.
Monique Brewster of Philadelphia told The Star-Ledger of Newark for Tuesday's newspapers that she was caught in the fire's smoke after arriving to visit her sister. She and others found themselves trapped at a front entrance until firefighters arrived because the door was locked with a chain.
"There was a silver chain and a Master lock. It didn't make sense," she said.
One of the motel's owners, Randy Maisuria, on Tuesday disputed such accounts. Maisuria said he interviewed employees after the fire, and they all said the doors had no chains or locks.
After the April complaint, Maisuria said, doors that could only be opened from the inside were installed, making the chains and locks unnecessary.
"I know, frankly, there was no chain and we never used a chain. And if someone is saying that, they don't know they're talking about," he said.