Security Bars Hinder Rescue of Miami-Dade, Florida Couple from Fire

When rescue workers rushed to a fire at the Mars home Monday in Northwest Miami-Dade, they tried to enter the house but found a front porch enclosed in iron gates. Behind the door was another iron gate, and that door was sealed with a deadbolt.

''Today's fire had a set of three doors just to get in the house,'' said Lt. Eric Baum, a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman. ``That's not the norm.''

Eventually, firefighters sawed through the bars, broke into the house, and took Joseph and Alunise Mars to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center, where they were in critical condition Monday night. Thirty-eight percent of 84-year-old Joseph Mars' body was burned, a Miami-Dade police spokesman said.

A faulty radiator had ignited the blaze in the living room of the one-story home at 441 NW 105th St. shortly after 6 a.m. A chair then caught fire and the blaze spread, Baum said. Entry to the house was impaired by the wrought-iron bars that covered the home's windows, he added.

''Every window on the house was covered with burglar bars,'' Baum said, noting the balance that homeowners need to strike between safety and security. ``They keep people out very well. They also keep people in very well.''

No permit had been issued for the security bars -- a building code requirement -- at the home at that address, said Miriam Rossi, a spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade County Building Department. Because there was no permit, Rossi couldn't say whether the bars were compliant with the county's code.

To prevent similar situations, county commissioners launched a campaign last year to urge homeowners to install quick-release mechanisms on window-covering security bars, allowing for easy escape.

A year ago, four children died in one of South Florida's deadliest fires in five years. The fire engulfed their Hialeah home as metal bars kept them trapped inside.

''I can't say the outcome would have been very different,'' Baum said about a fire in a bar-free house. ``But seconds count.''

In this working-class neighborhood just east of Interstate 95, burglar bars abound on the one-story homes. A couple of neighbors interviewed didn't have security concerns for the area, but a woman who lived across the street from the Mars' home did -- hence the bars on her front door and windows.

''We're obligated to keep bars on our windows from burglars,'' a housekeeper who identified herself as Jacqueline Castil, 49, said. ``We need that.''

The Mars' son Emmanuel justified his parents' choice to install the bars by pointing out the bars on many neighboring homes.

But Emmanuel Mars didn't want to talk about this. At the house to go through the remains of the fire, he was concerned about his parents -- his mother already in a wheelchair -- and said they were both unconscious.

''Basically, I'm here to secure their property and belongings and then go to the hospital,'' he said.