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6 dead in downtown Las Vegas apartment fire

Updated December 21, 2019 - 11:25 pm

Tenants of a downtown Las Vegas apartment building jumped from second- and third-story windows to escape an early morning fire Saturday that killed six and injured 13.

Some tenants of the three-story Alpine Motel Apartments, alerted to the fire not by alarms but by neighbors pounding on their doors, described first trying to escape through smoke-filled and locked stairwells before resorting to jumping.

“Someone started pounding on our door — ‘fire, fire, fire,’” said Tia Dotson, who evacuated safely with her 10-year-old daughter from her first-floor apartment in the building near Ninth Street and Stewart Avenue.

“We could see people jumping out of the windows. … We are going to be fine, by the grace of God,” she said despite losing everything they owned.

Survivors said their complaints about safety issues, such as having to use kitchen stoves to heat their apartments, had gone unheeded by the management of the building, the target of numerous code enforcement complaints, including a lack of fire safety equipment.

The fire is the deadliest blaze in the city’s history, Las Vegas Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski said, though not the deadliest in Clark County history. In 1980, a fire at the MGM Grand (now Bally’s) killed 87 people and injured more than 600.

In addition to those killed or injured, 30 to 35 other residents were displaced from their homes and were being assisted by the American Red Cross.

Five of the 13 injured were in critical condition, including a pregnant woman.

Of the fatalities, three people died inside the building, one was found on the sidewalk outside and one died at a hospital, Szymanski said. Information was not immediately available on the sixth person.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but it appears to have originated from a stove in a unit on the first floor, Szymanski said. Investigators were told by residents that the building did not have heat and that residents were using stoves for warmth, he said.

Szymanski said there’s no evidence of criminal activity.

“It appears it was accidental in nature,” he said.

Frantic escapes

Tenant Jonathan Wilson said he tried to escape to the rooftop of the wood-frame apartment building with his wife, DeJoy. The door to the roof was bolted and locked shut. Thick smoke kept the couple from going down the stairwell to the ground floor.

When these other routes failed them, he made a rope out of bed sheets to escape from the window of their third-story apartment. But DeJoy’s hands slipped on the rope and she fell most of the three stories to the ground.

Wilson lowered himself from an air-conditioning unit part of the way to the ground and then jumped. He found his wife, who is three months’ pregnant, “flat on her back,” unconscious. Another resident checked to make sure she had a pulse.

“I was distraught,” Wilson said from outside Las Vegas Academy, where residents were receiving assistance from the Red Cross and other organizations.

DeJoy, who is being treated at an area hospital, has regained consciousness and was able to speak with her husband.

“She’s in a lot of pain,” he said, with a broken leg, ankle, ribs and thumb, and fractures in her neck and lower back. Medical personnel told them the baby’s heartbeat was strong.

Wilson said he was still hoping to find the couple’s dog, a Chihuahua.

Like other residents interviewed, Wilson said he never heard a fire alarm go off. The couple recently relocated to Las Vegas from California and had been living at the apartment complex since August.

Sara Rachal and Brandon Monroe said they were alerted to the fire by knocks on their door.

“There was no alarm, nothing to alert us,” Rachal said.

Rachal and Monroe said heavy smoke and heat kept them from escaping via the front stairwell. On the back stairwell, they were told by residents going back up the stairs that the door to the outside was locked on the ground floor.

“We were trapped,” said Rachal, who, along with Monroe, eventually jumped to safety.

Monroe said that residents pulled the fire alarms on the second and third floor but that they didn’t work. Monroe and other residents said the alarms had gone off on one occasion two to three weeks ago.

Rachal described as heroes the residents who endangered their own lives to alert their neighbors to the hazard.

Resident Victor Cotton also said the back door was “bolted shut.” He said his girlfriend, 67-year-old Paralee Minter, woke him up to smoke filling their room, and they escaped by climbing out their first-floor window.

Cotton sat on his walker outside the building Saturday afternoon while the smell of smoke still hung in the air. He had just arrived back at the building to track down Red Cross resources after returning from the hospital, where he said Minter was being treated for burns on the left side of her face and hand.

“No, I’m not,” Cotton said when asked if he would be OK. “Because I don’t know where I’m going to go; I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have no money, got nothing. The only thing I got is her, and she’s at the hospital.”

Built in 1972

Investigators are looking into whether there are previous code violations with the building, Szymanski said. Firefighters heard smoke detectors but not fire alarms going off at the scene, he said.

Las Vegas City Councilman Cedric Crear, who represents Ward 5, said he visited the displaced residents Saturday and spoke with many tenants who had concerns about the motel. He said the investigation the city is launching is of the utmost importance.

“We do have regulations that need to be met across the board,” he said. “Somebody needs to be held accountable if there was malfeasance.”

City records show that the Alpine Motel was the subject of at least eight code enforcement complaints from 2016 through 2018, including complaints about a lack of fire safety equipment. The records do not show how the complaints were resolved.

The building was constructed in 1972 and has 41 units, according to Clark County online property records. The owner since 2013 is listed as Las Vegas Dragon Hotel LLC.

A Fire Department statement Saturday references 42 units in the building. Szymanski said the figure is based on the number the building manager provided to investigators.

Las Vegas Dragon Hotel’s most recent filing lists Adolfo Orozco as its registered agent and managing member as of Sept. 30. No other owners or agents are listed. Attempts to reach Orozco by phone and at his listed office were not successful.

The company also owns the nearby Economy Motel, as well as the Starlite Motel and Casa Blanca Hotel in North Las Vegas.

Malinda Mier identified herself to the Review-Journal as a co-owner of the property.

“I’m very saddened by the loss of life, especially during a time when family and friends are gathered for the holiday,” Mier said.

Mier claimed that the building was up to code as set forth by the city, but she was not sure whether the building had a sprinkler system. She said each room had a smoke detector and there was a “fire escape” on the front of the building.

Multiple residents told the Review-Journal that there was no sprinkler system and that the only way they knew of to get out was through the front or back doors. Two residents claimed that the back door was bolted shut, preventing exit.

“As far as the sprinkler system, I’m not exactly sure,” Mier said. “I’m not going to comment on that at this time, but I know that we have instructions for the building and code enforcement, and the people come out and test our fire system. All the rooms have smoke detectors.”

Syzmanski said the complex did not have a sprinkler system.

Regarding the back door, Mier said, “What I do know is that that door is broken into all the time. So the locking mechanisms on the actual doors are broken. So the wind could blow the doors open.”

Residents jumped from windows

Firefighters received reports of the fire shortly after 4 a.m. They found residents jumping from the building and others hanging out the windows, Szymanski said.

A second alarm was requested and additional firefighters arrived on scene with 10 additional ambulances to transport those injured to hospitals, the department said in a statement Saturday.

A fire crew entered the building’s front door and extinguished the fire in one apartment in less than a minute, according to the department. The occupant of the unit where the fire started hasn’t been located.

Survivor Anthony Meadows Jr. told the Review-Journal the fire started on the first floor and then “it escalated to the second floor and then to the third floor.”

People were jumping from the windows “to save their lives,” he said.

A man broke his leg in three places in order to save his children, and another man had his children shimmy down a pole, Meadows said. Meadows said he went down a fire department ladder and “almost died to get out.”

Another survivor, Floyd Guenther, 46, said he learned that the building was on fire when he was leaving to go to the store. He said he saw smoke when he came down the stairwell to the first floor.

He said he saw a glow like a fire, so he ran back up the stairs and stopped on every floor “hitting doors” and pulling fire alarms.

None of the fire alarms worked, and none of the smoke detectors went off, Guenther said.

A maintenance man was trying to kick the back stairway doors open but couldn’t get them open, Guenther said. The back door to the complex was bolted shut to keep the homeless from sleeping in the complex, he said.

He said they pulled “a couple of babies” and a couple of dogs out the front door but “the fire got too intense and I couldn’t do no more, so we went around to the side of the building, where we was catching the baby girls they were putting out the window.”

Firefighters using a fire ladder assisted Jimmy Lacy, Dayshena Thomas and Thomas’ 7-year-old son, Andru Roach, in escaping from the window of their apartment, the couple said.

“We were probably the last ones to get out alive,” said Thomas, adding that the couple had been awakened by Andru’s coughing.

Thomas and Lacy said they had lost all their possessions. Andru was clutching a stuffed Mickey Mouse toy given to him by the Red Cross.

The couple said they used the oven to heat their studio apartment, for which they paid rent of $700 per month. They complained to apartment management about having no heat and a broken refrigerator but were told the owner lives out of town.

Guenther also said he doesn’t have heat in his unit and was using his stove for warmth. He said the smoke detector in his unit doesn’t work.

Szymanski said the fire caused an estimated $475,000 in damage.

Building managers estimated that about 70 people live in the building, according to the statement. In total, nearly 50 people were displaced.

Jenny Sparks, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said the organization had assisted 34 people as of Saturday afternoon but expected that number would rise.

The Red Cross is providing material assistance, she said, and is gearing up to provide emotional and spiritual care as well.

Two cats and one dog also died in the fire. One dog was rescued by city animal control and was taken to a veterinarian to be treated for smoke inhalation.

A previous version of this article misidentified the owner of the Dragon Motel.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter. Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter. Contact Glenn Puit at gpuit@review-journal.com or 702-383-0390. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Michael Scott Davidson and Review-Journal staff photographer Kevin Cannon contributed to this story.

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