By Tiffeny Owens
The Cullman Times
Hanceville Mayor Kenneth Nail claims political shenanigans are behind a state fire marshal’s surprise inspection and recommended closure of the city’s haunted house just hours before it was to open.
The Hanceville Spook House operated as planned last Friday and Saturday despite a deputy fire marshal’s recommendation sprinkler and voice alarm systems be installed inside the metal building behind the city’s recreation center before the haunted house opened to the public. City Attorney Dan Willingham sought and received a court order from Cullman County Circuit Judge Martha Williams allowing it to operate, provided that the city park a fire engine manned with firefighters at the attraction and firefighters be stationed inside along with four fire extinguishers.
Nail said he has his own suspicions about who called the fire marshal for the emergency inspection, but he doesn’t have any proof. He believes “political adversaries” did it to try to prevent the haunted house from opening to make him look bad.
“We already had fire and heat detectors in the building and emergency lights,” Nail said. “My wife has been working on this since August, and we put a good bit of our own personal money into it so that we could do something for the kids and the community at no cost to the city.”
“Firefighters, police and medics volunteered their time to work it, and with the fire truck and four extinguishers, I’d say it was probably the safest haunted house in Cullman County.”
Nail estimated the cost to install a sprinkler system inside the metal building to be between $40,000 and $50,000. The spook house and Halloween carnival held at the recreation center made around $1,000 for the city, he said.
Alabama Fire Marshal Ed Paulk said regulations for “special event amusement occupations,” like haunted houses, are in place and enforced for occupants’ safety.
“With haunted houses, we put people in a dark room, we confuse them, we scare them, and if something bad happens, like a fire, we expect them to be able to find their way out safely?” Paulk said. “The code is there for a reason and it’s to keep people safe. If someone was to get killed, people would ask ‘Why wasn’t this done?’ ‘Why wasn’t this checked and made safe?’”
Paulk said his office has advised a total of five haunted houses across the state so far not operate due to violating fire and occupancy codes. He said when his office becomes aware of a possible issue — either by someone calling with concerns or complaints — officials inspect the attractions. He said it wasn’t uncommon for a haunted house to seek a court order overturning a fire marshal’s recommendation.
“If a court decides to take jurisdiction and tell them it’s OK for someone to violate the code, there’s nothing we can do about that. People have the right to appeal a fire marshal’s recommendation. It’s an issue of putting money over safety.”
Nail said no issues or injuries occurred at the haunted house and everyone who attended seemed to enjoy themselves.
“When I feel like we’re in the right as a city, I’m going to fight tooth and nail, and if we’re wrong, we’ll do whatever we need to do to fix it. But this is just ridiculous,” Nail said. “Don’t come up here and pick on Hanceville. If the fire marshal is going to inspect our haunted house, I think they should go inspect all the haunted houses in Cullman County.”
Nail said Paulk is scheduled to meet with him next week to discuss the issues with the city jail.
Nail said this isn’t the first time someone has reported the city to state and federal agencies. A recent example is the Alabama Department of Environmental Management being notified when work crews were cleaning out a ditch, he said.
Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.