LITTLETON, Colo. — $500 to keep silent. That’s what residents of the SouthGlenn Plaza apartments at 6651 Vine St. in Littleton were offered after a boiler explosion June 12 left the residents of 16 units without a home.
“If you’re going to offer people $500 not to say anything, that $500 could have been used to get someone to check the boiler,” said Justine Platero, who was seriously injured in the blast. “Make sure nothing was wrong with it.”
The 24-year old mom was air lifted to the University of Colorado Anschutz medical campus, where she spent a week in the burn unit.
“I just saw something black fly at my face and everything went just black,” said Platero.
Platero was sitting on her sofa watching TV, when the boiler for her apartment complex suddenly exploded in the room next door, blowing a hole through her wall sending debris and asbestos everywhere.
She suffered second-degree burns to her face, arm and shoulder and can no longer spend time in the sun or hear out of her left ear.
“My furniture my clothes, I lost everything, I lost everything,” said Platero, including her “Peace of mind. I felt safe, my home was somewhere I felt safe. ”
Platero’s neighbors were sent to stay at an Extended Stay hotel near Park Meadows Mall until June 30 but all soon received eviction letters and a confidential release form offering $500.00.
“It was aggressive and it was hard to sign it given those terms,” said former resident Brian Peterson, who refused to sign. The terms protected Triton Properties from a lawsuit. The agreement read the contract should never be treated “as evidence of negligence, liability or responsibility.”
In addition, the confidential release said tenants could never “Disclose or cause to be made public to any person or entity any information regarding the June 12, 2015 incident at the SouthGlenn Plaza Apartments.”
Peterson said he thought the property management company was worried about negative online reviews, “I felt like there`s a price that has been given and then I have to be quiet.”
Justine Platero hired attorney Chad Hemmat, who immediately filed a lawsuit against Triton Properties.
“I don’t think there is any question this was hush hush money,” said Hemmat, in reference to the $500 offered to tenants.
“These folks (Triton Properties) are trying to save themselves the possibility of long-term litigation by getting folks who don’t have a place to stay, at their most vulnerable and say, ‘Hey, sign away rights and we’ll give you 500 dollars… and by the way, you can’t live here ever again because it’s so dangerous,’” said Hemmat.
Signs warning of asbestos concerns still hang at the complex. It’s not known how long it’ll take to rehabilitate the building.
The cause of the blast remains under investigation but state boiler inspector Steven Nelson has a good hunch: “Over pressure I think was the primary cause.”
Nelson said it took Triton properties 17 days to notify him of the explosion and by then his most importance piece of evidence, the pressure relieve valve to the boiler, was missing.
“Sure would`ve helped answer some questions that are out there,” said Nelson.
In his report, Nelson wrote Triton properties suggested the pressure relieve valve “appears to have been stolen by copper collectors.”
When FOX31 Denver asked Nelson if that sounded plausible, he replied, “You know, it can be a little bit curious.”
Attorney Chad Hemmat dismisses the notion that copper thieves happened to steal the most important piece of evidence.
“They took the one important thing that would possibly connect the lack of maintenance to the negligence of this company… Any idea who that stood to benefit?” asked an incredulous Hemmat.
Triton Properties refused to talk with FOX31 Denver on camera, but in a statement said the $500 payments were simply, “giving those residents the opportunity to participate in a program providing quick and reasonable payments for possible property damage and incidental expenses.”
The property management company did not address why the program was intended to be a secret or why it stipulated tenants must give up their rights to pursue further legal action.
The state of Colorado mandates apartment building boilers to be inspected every two years. The boiler that blew up passed its last inspection in March of 2014. State Inspectors noted the boiler was probably original to the building and at 45-years old, its age may have been a factor in the explosion.