Owner of sober living home where fire killed 3 defends herself, business

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) –  The owner of a sober living home where three women died in a fire told News 2 there were working smoke alarms in the home. She believes the women who perished were trying to get out but were trapped.

“The buck stops with me,” Phyllis Abuan told News 2. “Even though I know there was nothing I could’ve done differently, I still feel that responsibility.”

Abuan owns “Footprints 2 Recovery”, which provides sober living for people recovering from drug or alcohol abuse. There are curfews, chores and random drug and alcohol tests.

Abuan does not provide treatment, so she only needs a business license to operate. A check of the Tennessee Secretary of State website shows Abuan’s license was up to date.

“We call them transitional living. It’s just a safe place for them to be held accountable,” she said. “There are house managers at each location to check in on the people living there and make sure they’re following the rules.”

Abuan has three homes, two for women and one for men. The home on Southwood Drive housed 14 women and one boy, who lived there with his mother, a house manager.

An early morning fire tore through the home on Valentine’s Day. 22-year-old Katie Baird, 36-year-old Tammy Nelson and 35-year-old Libby Lopez died.

The Nashville Fire Department says there were no working smoke alarms in the home. Metro Police even opened a criminal investigation. However, Abuan maintains there were smoke alarms and they were working.

“The women have all indicated, and have spoken to a detective, that the majority of them heard the smoke alarms,” she said.

Abuan said the three women who died in the fire shared a bedroom with a fourth woman. That woman told Abuan they were all trying to get out but she went a different way and was able to make it out. She believes the other three women became trapped.

“It’s hurt me terribly. These were young women I had become close to,” said Abuan. “I’m the mom. I come in and make sure the house is clean and I do lots of other things. I teach them.”

Abuan says she started her company to help other people in recovery. She is in recovery herself and has been sober for over a decade. She says people have been accusing her of taking advantage of vulnerable people.

“There is no money making venture in this field. My own experience is that I don’t make any money,” she said. “I don’t have a bank account with $10,000 sitting in it. I barely make ends meet.”

The home on Southwood Drive is still standing but is uninhabitable. Abuan has only been back once.

“I opened the front door and I about fell out,” she said. “I couldn’t believe the girls made it out. I’m so very thankful the majority of them made it out.”

Abuan has installed additional smoke alarms and fire extinguishers to her other homes. She says she’s going to continue what she’s set out to do: help people stay sober.

“The other women are just trying to work through this and we’re all trying to help them get the help that they need,” she said.

The Nashville Fire Department says the cause of the fire is undetermined. Meanwhile, the Metro Police investigation remains open.The Nashville based company called Footprints 2 Recovery is not related to the national company, called Footprints to Recovery, which operates addiction treatment centers that are licensed and nationally accredited in multiple states.  

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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