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SMOKE, PANIC AND A ‘BALL OF FIRE’
Investigators walk through an interior corridor Dec. 21, 2019 after an early-morning fire at the Alpine Motel Apartments in Las Vegas. The fire was in first-floor unit of the three-story apartment complex. Six died and 13 were injured. (AP Photo/David Becker)
It's been a year since the dilapidated downtown Las Vegas apartment building caught fire. Newly-released records and testimony detail what went wrong and what could have kept six people from dying.

Floyd Guenther wanted cereal.

It was early Dec. 21, 2019, about 4 a.m. Quiet. Many of his neighbors at the Alpine Motel Apartments were asleep.

Nothing seemed unusual as he headed for the corner store, closing up his third-floor room and walking down a narrow hallway toward the building’s front stairwell.

Floyd Guenther told police he saw “a ball of fire” in the Alpine Motel Apartments, and that nothing happened when he pulled multiple fire alarms. (Glenn Puit Las Vegas Review-Journal)

But on the first floor, where the stairs spit him out, he suddenly smelled smoke. Above him, near the front door, it gently hovered, swirling on the ceiling. He heard no beeping smoke detectors. No blaring fire alarm.

Peeking out from the stairwell landing and down the first floor hallway, he couldn’t see much. So he stepped a little farther out, peering beyond a vending machine and pair of fridges partially blocking the path. From there, about halfway down the hall, he saw “a ball of fire,” he told police, according to witness statements recently released to the Review-Journal.

Apparently alone in his discovery, Guenther, 46, pulled the fire alarm next to him, but nothing sounded. So he pounded on doors nearby, screaming about the flames, and darted upstairs.

He yanked the fire alarm on the second floor. Again, nothing sounded. So again, he used his fists — pausing between sprints to pound on each door, working as a human fire alarm to alert groggy residents about the danger below.

When he reached the building’s back stairwell, he ran downstairs, he told police. He needed to alert the other half of the Alpine’s first-floor residents. But they must have heard his cries, because a group was already gathering at the building’s rear exit, which had been bolted shut for more than a month, residents told police.

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Alpine fire survivor Floyd Guenther looks at his former home as investigators work inside the property to locate and document evidence, in Las Vegas, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (Erik Verduzco / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco
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Brandon Monroe, left, told police he was awake with fiancee Sara Rachal, right, when someone pounded on the door. He said he emerged from his room to see “pandemonium, just people going crazy.” (L.E. Baskow Las Vegas Review-Journal @Left_Eye_Images)
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Corey Evans, a former resident of the Alpine Motel Apartments, leaves the courtroom during a preliminary hearing for defendants Adolfo Orozco and Malinda Mier in September at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas. (Ellen Schmidt Las Vegas Review-Journal)
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Former Alpine Motel Apartments resident Timothy Henry breaks down in tears during a preliminary hearing for Adolfo Orozco and Malinda Mier, the two defendants charged in the Alpine Motel Apartments fire, at the Regional Justice Center on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @ellenschmidttt
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Sandra Jones, 49, Alpine Motel Apartments resident currently displaced, shares her experience escaping the fatal fire while waiting for services provided at the Alpine Family Assistance Center at the Dula Gymnasium in Las Vegas on Monday, Dec. 23, 2019. Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @EliPagePhoto
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Audrey Palmer, left and wife Helen Clark recall on Friday, June 19, 2020, in Las Vegas how they survived the Alpine Motel Apartments fire six months earlier and are still feeling the effects. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
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Floyd Guenther, at right in blue shirt, the morning of the fire. Survivors stand near the parking lot of the Alpine.

Escape from building was race against smoke, panic and ‘a ball of fire’

I held the door open with my left foot and I was trying to reach in and get the lady.
I — I had to let the door go.

Floyd Guenther

The smoke was worse now — thick, black, hot. Guenther led the group up to the second floor, which also was filling with smoke. Residents were shuffling out of their rooms, but he continued up to the third floor alone, where again he pulled an alarm and again nothing sounded.

“I started the same routine,” he told detectives, pounding and screaming, pounding and screaming. By then, others had joined in.

Confident most of the building knew of the fire, he began his escape. But a woman on the third floor who seemed confused wasn’t following. So he grabbed her and dragged her down the front stairwell.

He was feet from the front door — the smoke blinding — when he realized there were three children huddled near the bottom of the steps. Guenther let go of the woman and grabbed the kids, getting them outside.

“I held the door open with my left foot and I was trying to reach in and get the lady,” he told police.

The woman, Kerry Baclaan, was begging for help. But the heat was too much. A ball of flames looked like it was rolling toward him.

“I — I had to let the door go,” he said.

Investigators found Baclaan, 46, where Guenther left her, unresponsive. Later pronounced dead at University Medical Center, she was one of six who died in the blaze, the deadliest residential fire in Las Vegas history.

The back entrance to the Alpine Apartment Motel after a fire left 6 dead in Las Vegas on Saturd ...
The back entrance to the Alpine Apartment Motel after a fire left 6 dead in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

‘A commotion’ and panicked escape

The documents released to the Review-Journal in late October — nearly a year after the blaze — paint the clearest picture yet of Alpine residents’ panicked escape. They also reveal in great detail just how dilapidated the building was, where badly needed repairs or bug infestations went unaddressed.

“I had a couple pet cockroaches, Enrique and Jessupe,” one resident, Sandra Jones — the first to call 911 — later told police, joking about her living conditions.

The morning of the fire, several residents told the Review-Journal their apartments had no heat, so they resorted to opening their ovens for warmth. Some turned on an electric burner or two, records show. Guenther told police he regularly turned on three; the fourth didn’t work.

Investigators later determined the deadly blaze originated from an unattended stovetop in unit 8, which sits in the middle of the first-floor hallway. The exact cause of the fire remains unknown, but it was ruled accidental.

The unit was home to Corey Evans, who had been working long, late shifts at a distribution center for Moen, a faucet manufacturer. He started work about 3 p.m. Dec. 20, 2019, and got off around 1:30 a.m. the next day, he told police. A coworker drove him home.

Displaced Alpine Motel Apartments tenant Audrey Palmer weeps on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020 at the apartments during a memorial in honor of the one-month anniversary of the Dec. 21 fire in Las Vegas. (Elizabeth Page Brumley /Las Vegas Review-Journal) @elipagephoto
The Alpine Motel Apartments pictured on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Las Vegas. (David Guzman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Since it first got real cold — that first windy day we had, when it just got cold beyond belief.

Corey Evans

When he walked into his apartment, he cranked on his oven, opened its door and clicked on at least one electric burner, a routine he had repeated “since it first got real cold — that first windy day we had, when it just got cold beyond belief,” he told police.

Then he sat on his phone for a while, mindlessly scrolling as he decompressed from work.

As he grew sleepy, a friend called at 3:54 a.m. to say he was outside. The friend had texted Evans earlier asking to borrow money. Evans had agreed, he told police.

So Evans put on his belt and grabbed his wallet, leaving the stove on, and rode in his friend’s car to a nearby convenience store, where bank records show he withdrew $100 at 4:05 a.m.

They returned to find a “commotion” at the Alpine, he told police, and people “hollering about smoke.”

The friend parked in the Alpine lot, and Evans went inside. The door to his unit was closed. When he opened it, a surge of smoke blinded him.

Panicked, he got down on the ground, crawling toward the front door.

The fire department was on its way, others yelled. Jones’ call was placed at 4:13 a.m., records show. But when Evans made it out of the building, he didn’t see any engines. He called 911 at 4:17 a.m.

Employees with the Forensic Investigations Group work inside the Alpine Motel during an investi ...
Employees with the Forensic Investigations Group work inside the Alpine Motel during an investigation of the Las Vegas property, March 11, 2020. (Erik Verduzco / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

Second man, Don Bennett, pounds on doors

On the second floor, across from the front stairwell, Roy Backhus was asleep in his apartment when Guenther discovered the fire. His partner of 20 years, Kelvin Salyers, was playing games on his computer.

A commotion stirred Backhus awake, he later told police; the couple figured people in the hallway were arguing.

Then Don Bennett, who worked as a handyman in the building, pounded on their door.

In statements, several witnesses credited Guenther with alerting them to the fire; others credited Bennett, who records suggest joined in to help. Fire crews later pulled Bennett, a disabled Marine Corps veteran, from the bottom of the back stairwell, where he was found unresponsive. The 63-year-old was pronounced dead at UMC.

“He was last seen working on the rear door near the stairwell trying to get it open to save people,” police records show.

As Bennett continued down the second-floor hall, the couple told police, they put on their shoes and jackets. But when they opened their door, they couldn’t see.

Salyers reached through the smoke for the stairwell door, but it was too hot. So they ran toward the back of the building and down one flight of stairs. The door handle to the first floor was also too hot — the smoke thick, black.

“We couldn’t find each other, couldn’t find each other,” Backhus told police. “The smoke was too — too heavy.”

They retreated upstairs, where they reunited, went in another resident’s apartment and hollered from the window for help.

A photo provided to the Review-Journal shows the rear-exit door of the Alpine Motel Apartments, where residents tried to escape, barred shut. (Donald Walford)
Three buttons had been depressed on the Alpine Motel Apartments’ fire alarm panel, which effectively silenced the building’s audible alarm. (Las Vegas Fire Department)

He was last seen working on the rear door near the stairwell trying to get it open to save people.

Police records show

Stairwell was a chimney

A few doors down and across the hall from Backhus was Brandon Monroe, who told police he was awake with his fiancee, Sara Rachal, when someone pounded on the door.

He emerged from his room to see smoke — not a ton yet — but also “pandemonium, just people going crazy.”

Monroe remembered seeing a fire extinguisher on the first floor, the only one in the building. He immediately ran to grab it, headed for the back stairs.

But he didn’t make it down; the stairwell was a chimney now, the smoke too much. He returned to his fiancee on the second floor and urged her to grab her things. Then he ran for the front stairs, but the smoke was even worse.

“It still blows my mind knowing that, like, air without a flame can get that hot,” he told police. “I had my, uh, coat over my face like a filter and it still just burned my lungs.”

Retreating to their apartment, he knew the window was their only escape; others on their floor were now doing the same.

Monroe went first, making it down on his feet. His fiancee fell as he tried to catch her.

Sheets tied together hang from the third floor as firefighters respond to a fire at the Alpine ...
Sheets tied together hang from the third floor as firefighters respond to a fire at the Alpine Motel Apartments that left six dead in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Screaming, tying sheets together

On the third floor, near the back of the building, Guenther woke Joe Aguilera.

As Guenther continued, pounding and screaming, Aguilera ran for the front stairwell in his socks. He opened the door to rising smoke.

So he ran for the back stairwell, making it down to the second floor before black smoke forced him to retreat.

“I wanted to see fl — actual flames,” Aguilera told police. “I wanted to see exactly the extent of how bad, but when you think about smoke — that’s what’s gonna eat you up the quickest.”

Back on the third floor, he thought to himself, “Keep calm and think,” he told police. “Think right and correct.”

Around him, people were screaming. Trying to focus, he told everyone to go back into their rooms.

“Open up your windows and that’s gonna be our only way out,” he said.

But instead, panicked people crowded into his apartment.

First, he tried tying sheets together, which he secured to the bottom of a bellhop cart in his room. A woman inside sat on the ground, pulling on the knot to better support his weight.

As the group grew increasingly frantic, he told her to shove his mattress out the window once he made it down. He would try to get it on a car or truck in the parking lot to help break their falls, he said. Then he headed out the window, dangling from the air-conditioning unit outside as he tried to grip his toes on the exterior wall below.

But as he looked down, deciding how best to get to the ground, another woman leaned out of his window, yelling for help. Aguilera lost his grip, slid down the sheets and fell to the pavement, knocking the wind out of him.

For a few, slow seconds, Aguilera couldn’t breathe. His wrist was broken. Around him, people were jumping to the ground or slipping down. A pregnant woman, DeJoy Wilson, broke her back.

“My baby is seein’ this,” Tiacherelle Dotson, who escaped her first-floor apartment with her husband and young daughter, later told police. “I don’t know how to shelter her from it.”

When Aguilera was able to stand, he caught a puppy someone tossed down. Uniformed officers were scaling the building now, helping people out of a second-floor room. In the distance, he heard sirens.

Undated composite file photos of Alpine Motel Apartment fire victims. (Top row left to right) K ...
Undated composite file photos of Alpine Motel Apartment fire victims. (Top row left to right) Kerry Baclaan, 46; Henry Lawrence Pinc, 70; and Cynthia Mikell, 61. (Bottom row left to right) Donald Keith Bennett, 63; Tracy Ann Cihal, 57; and Francis Lombardo Jr., 72 (not pictured).

Finding the bodies

Arriving firefighters cut the back door off its frame and searched for survivors. The flames were out within a minute.

In the first-floor hallway, crews found the badly burned bodies of two women: Tracy Cihal, 57, and Cynthia Mikell, 61. Both had mobility issues, family and friends told police.

In the bathtub of apartment 12, near the back door, they found the body of Francis “Frank” Lombardo Jr., 72. He was still clutching his eyeglasses.

“It was believed Lombardo was unable to exit his apartment due to the extreme amount of smoke,” detectives later wrote, guessing he took shelter there, hoping for rescue.

The sixth victim, Henry Pinc, 70, was found dead in the street less than a block from the building. Soot soiled his face and body. Detectives believe he was overcome by smoke after trying to help others escape.

Crews with ladders evacuated Aguilera’s room first and rescued several others, including Backhus and his partner. The number of people screaming for help was “almost like a scene from a movie,” one firefighter later wrote in a report.

Thirteen people were injured. Had it not been for people pounding on doors, Monroe told police, “I know we wouldn’t have made it out.”

Unit 8 where fire started

When police pressed Evans on whether he may have accidentally left anything flammable on the stove — something an electric burner could have heated enough to catch fire — Evans drew a blank.

“I — like I really couldn’t think,” he said.

There may have been some used dishes on the stovetop, he told police, but nothing with any cooking oil. He had been living off frozen pizzas and fast food.

“I was about to go to sleep, so whatever was on there would have still been on there,” he told police, “’cause I wasn’t even thinking about turning the stove off or nothin’.”

If his friend hadn’t come by to borrow money, he repeated, “I was going to sleep.”

At the time of the blaze, the building, built in 1972, had gone almost three years without a city fire inspection, the Review-Journal reported in January. In its aftermath, investigators cited more than 40 fire code violations, including the sealed rear exit and a faulty fire alarm system.

Records released in September suggested someone manually silenced the alarm system weeks before the tragedy.

In police interviews, residents also described “numerous unsafe and unhealthy conditions, in nearly every room,” investigators wrote, describing the building as “squalid.”

Smoke stains outside the Alpine Motel Apartments, unit 8 where the fire started, photographed o ...
Smoke stains outside the Alpine Motel Apartments, unit 8 where the fire started, photographed on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Las Vegas. (David Guzman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Outlets didn’t work, or sparked sometimes. Bathtubs and sinks leaked, or got stopped up. Ceilings and walls had gaping holes. One woman told detectives that when a toilet in the unit above her broke, “the water literally rained in my bathroom.”

“You’d have to sit under a blanket to use the toilet,” she said.

Residents waited weeks and months for repairs. Some never came.

“That place was uninhabitable,” Monroe told detectives. “Not even a roach should have had to live there.”

But roaches did. Many residents also complained of bedbugs. When Evans got home from work the morning of the fire, he told detectives he opened a beer but never finished it; bugs got in it.

Investigators asserted the building’s poor condition and lack of maintenance “contributed to the fire being started, and to the death and injury toll.”

Alpine Motel Apartments owner Adolfo Orozco speaks to his attorney Dominic Gentile during a preliminary hearing Sept. 14 at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas. (Ellen Schmidt Las Vegas Review-Journal) @ellenschmidttt
Malinda Mier, co-defendant in the Alpine Apartments fire, appears in court during a preliminary hearing Sept. 30 at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye

If these defendants had responsibly maintained the property, these six victims would be alive today.

Steve Wolfson, Clark County District Attorney

Orozco faces felonies

Seven months after the blaze, authorities in July filed involuntary manslaughter charges against the building’s landlord and owner, Adolfo Orozco, and a purported co-owner of the building, Malinda Mier. Each faces six counts — one for each victim.

Orozco, who is also being sued for wrongful death, has never spoken to the media. But in March, using public records, the Review-Journal pieced together how the California college graduate and former second-grade teacher came to amass a real estate empire in Las Vegas, investing big during the Great Recession with his wife and four companies tied to them.

The news organization also found complaints of wage theft, thousands in unpaid property bills and hundreds of previously issued health and safety code violations among his apartment and hotel buildings, which he began selling off after the fire.

Orozco and Mier also face 15 counts each of “performance of an act or neglect of duty in disregard of safety resulting in substantial bodily harm or death.” Orozco faces four additional counts of “preventing or dissuading witness or victim from reporting crime or commencing prosecution with use of a deadly weapon.” All charges are felonies.

“If these defendants had responsibly maintained the property, these six victims would be alive today,” Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said in a news release at the time.

A preliminary hearing began in August. At its conclusion, a judge will determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring the case to trial. But four months later, the hearing is still ongoing, running unusually long for two reasons: because it’s a voluminous case, and because the COVID-19 pandemic and adjusted court schedule have drawn things out.

As of last week, prosecutors had called more than 20 witnesses, including residents, fire personnel and arriving officers. The Alpine’s on-site property manager Jason Casteel — who told police he approached Orozco as early as October about fixing the rear door, which was never repaired — is currently in the middle of testimony. He returns to the stand Monday.

Orozco’s defense attorney is also in the process of appealing a court ruling. So is Mier’s defense attorney. And the defense has not yet called witnesses. The hearing is expected to continue into next year.

Wolfson last week did not respond to a request for comment about whether plea deals are possible. Orozco’s attorney, Dominic Gentile, did not respond either.

Workers board up windows at the Alpine Motel Apartments in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, Oct. 15 ...
Workers board up windows at the Alpine Motel Apartments in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. The apartment building was the site of a December 2019 fire that killed six and injured 13. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto

‘Where did the city fall down?’

Next week, retired Metropolitan Police Department officer and downtown Las Vegas community advocate Don Walford plans to address the Las Vegas City Council about the Alpine tragedy.

Not about the criminal case, he told the Review-Journal. But about how exactly the Alpine, which had a history of failed fire inspections, fell through the cracks. And whether anyone has taken responsibility — especially after Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and City Councilman Cedric Crear, whose Ward 5 includes the Alpine, called for a thorough investigation in its wake.

“We are going to do our due diligence, we’re going to have an in-depth investigation,” Crear said in January, “and we’re going to find out who and what’s accountable for this.”

The city in September passed measures aimed at better targeting neglected apartment buildings and extended-stay hotels like the Alpine with more frequent inspections and fines. But Walford said he wants answers.

“There were already laws and ordinances on the books that could have saved these six people,” he told the Review-Journal. “Where did the city and the fire department fall down?”

The Wednesday council meeting begins at 9 a.m. Walford plans to speak during public comment.

The Review-Journal’s investigative team focuses on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3801. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter.

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