weather icon Clear

‘I just want to get my life back,’ Alpine fire survivor says

Six months ago today, Paul Wise escaped from the Alpine Motel Apartments fire with his life and the clothes on his back.

It hasn’t been an easy journey since.

Wise, who said he is “70-plus,” had to find a new place to live on a limited income. He’s struggled through a frustrating, monthslong attempt to retrieve his belongings, overcome an illness caused by smoke inhalation, and dealt with a nagging shoulder injury suffered in the deadliest residential fire in Las Vegas history.

“Real bad,” Wise said. “Man, it just blows my mind.”

It was a close call that morning, when he escaped through a smoke-filled hallway. Despite the months of obstacles, he’s thankful to be alive.

As the grim anniversary approached, Wise and other survivors recounted similar stories of financial despair, relocation, lost possessions and, at times, hopelessness.

“Everything I worked so hard for was gone,” said Alpine survivor Sandi Jones, 49. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to live?’ ”

As for Audrey Palmer, 57, she can’t see a future where she doesn’t sleep with the key in the front door, just in case she and her wife, Helen Clark, 55, need a quick escape.

“We used to have fun over there, but everything got bad. I don’t know why,” said Palmer about the building where she worked and lived with Clark for nearly eight years.

Lost belongings, painful memories

The origin of the Dec. 21 fire at 213 N. Ninth St. has been traced to a stove in a first-floor apartment. Killed were Tracy Ann Cihal, 57, Cynthia Mikell, 61, Henry Lawrence Pinc, 70, Francis Lombardo Jr., 72, Donald Keith Bennett, 63, and Kerry Baclaan, 46.

More than 40 fire code violations were discovered during an inspection of the property after the blaze. Las Vegas police previously tried to get the property closed, describing it as a chronic nuisance, but city officials resisted.

Since the fire, a flurry of lawsuits were filed on behalf of survivors and the families of the deceased, alleging that proprietor Adolfo Orozco — who has owned the Alpine Motel through Las Vegas Dragon Hotel LLC since 2013 — provided unsafe living conditions. The litigation is ongoing.

Jones said she made the first 911 call from her apartment adjacent to the room where the fire started. The proximity to the blaze left most of her belongings contaminated by asbestos, but they may be available for pickup from a storage facility next week.

She said she’s most looking forward to retrieving her autographed photo of Steve Priest, the original bass player from her favorite band, The Sweet. Choking back tears, she said her keepsakes could be gone forever.

“I just want to get my life back, and if I can get two, maybe three things out of that apartment, I’d be so happy,” Jones said.

Other survivors, including Palmer and Clark, recently were able to collect belongings. During an interview Friday, the couple said they still have property that’s unaccounted for. Thinking of the lost memories prompted tears to fall down Clark’s cheeks.

But Clark smiled when showing off the bikes the couple recently retrieved from the Alpine. Palmer bought the bikes from Bennett, who worked in the building as a maintenance man before he was killed in the blaze.

Wise also said he’s frustrated with his inability to retrieve valuable belongings. He had six guitars and keyboards stored in his closet, but he’s only been reunited with one bass guitar. Like Jones’ items, Wise said his instruments might have been contaminated with asbestos.

It’s also possible the instruments, along with some property of other survivors, were stolen during burglaries at the building since the fire.

“If they get my guitars and briefcase, pictures, paperwork and documents, that would be great for me,” Wise said. “I’m holding on because that’s a lot of money, man. I didn’t play no cheap stuff.”

Moving forward

The Alpine residents have scattered since their home was destroyed.

Palmer and Clark now live with the help of Social Security in a small apartment near Twain Avenue and Swenson Street. Wise leaned on his friends, family and a $125 check from the American Red Cross to find housing, and he now stays in a quaint home in the northeast valley. Jones relies on social services to afford rent for her Fremont Street apartment since the coronavirus pandemic stopped her income as a street performer.

Clark’s shoulder hurts from when she jumped out a window, and Jones’ anxiety and preexisting back and knee problems have grown worse since the tragedy.

Some former residents, including Jones, brought a lawsuit against the property’s owner and companies that installed smoke and fire alarm systems. Jones said she hopes the lawsuit makes sure “something like this never happens again.”

Wise said that when he moved to the Alpine in 2007, it was a decent place to live, but it slowly deteriorated over the years. By the time of the fire, he said, it was infested with insects and suffered from leaky plumbing. And old refrigerators had been left in the hallways.

He navigated around those refrigerators in the smoke-filled hallways that morning on his way out the front door. Wise said he heard people screaming as they jumped from upper-level floors of the property.

Panic almost froze Palmer amid the smoke and flames, until she realized that children were trapped with her on the Alpine’s second floor. She ended up persuading everyone to jump out the windows.

“It was like God said, ‘No, you got to get these kids out of there,’ ” she said.

Wise recalled how the building’s back door was bolted shut, preventing escape.

”It was nailed up for a long time,” Wise said, adding, “Me and some of the people used to talk – if there is a fire, how are them people upstairs going to get out?”

Mikell’s body was found in the hallway near the bolted back door.

The fire and the subsequent chaos may have taken her belongings, but Clark said she’s grateful that when disaster struck, the residents stuck together to save some neighbors. She has a new respect for human life, but it’s come with restlessness and nightmares.

“I look forward to just waking up every day,” she said.

Contact Glenn Puit by email at gpuit@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter. Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter. Contact Amanda Bradford at abradford@reviewjournal.com. Follow @amandabrad_uc on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Local Videos
Jara says time for debate is over on CCSD reopening plan - VIDEO
With pressure growing for the Clark County School District to modify its school reopening plan, Superintendent Jesus Jara said Tuesday that the time has come to move forward on the existing blueprint. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
RTC considers route changes as pandemic affects ridership, revenue - Video
Stung by a drop in public bus ridership because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada is considering systemwide service changes. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)v
Fireworks light up Las Vegas - Video
Las Vegas celebrated the Fourth of July with fireworks lighting up the entire valley. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fireworks in the Moapa sky - Video
Fireworks explode near Moapa Paiute Travel Plaza during Fourth of July festivities in Moapa, northwest of Las Vegas, on Saturday, July 4, 2020. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fourth of July fireworks at Plaza in downtown Las Vegas - Video
Fourth of July fireworks at the Plaza casino lit up the night sky in downtown Las Vegas on Saturday. (David Guzman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas teen shares COVID-19 story on social media - Video
Kaydee Asher speaks with the RJ about what it's like having COVID-19, how she may have contracted the virus, and how she's using her platform to tell other young people to be safe. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police officer Shay Mikalonis moved to spinal cord center.
Paralyzed Las Vegas police officer Shay Mikalonis was being transferred to an out-of-state medical facility Wednesday morning for treatment of a severe spinal cord injury. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Mahagony fire timelapse
Timelapse of Mt.Charleston Mahogany fire as seen from Skye Canyon. (Andrea Leal)
Summerlin will have virtual 4th of July parade - Video
The Summerlin Council Patriotic Parade will be held virtually this year on July 4. Golden Knights players Nate Schmidt and Alec Martinez will take part. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Effort to fight illegal fireworks resumes for Fourth of July (PSAs) - Video
Law enforcement in Clark County will take part in the interagency "You Light It, We Write It” campaign to crack down on the use of illegal fireworks in the Las Vegas Valley this Fourth of July. (Clark County)
Henderson police officers test positive for COVID-19 - Video
Two officers with the Henderson Police Department received positive test results for coronavirus on June 21, 2020. The officers were assigned to the Training and Development Unit. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tech problems on DMV website cause long lines - Video
Las Vegas residents have been standing in line for hours frustrated because they can't make an appointment on the Department of Motor Vehicles website due to technical issues. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
News COVID-19 testing site opening at Texas Station - Video
The Texas Station site is operating in addition to the drive-thru testing site in the UNLV Tropicana parking garage next to the Thomas & Mack Center. Both sites are operated by Clark County and University Medical Center in partnership with the Nevada National Guard. (Renee Summerour and Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Black Lives Matter protest mural on Juneteenth - Video
Amy Van Rosen with the Good All Day Collective joins volunteers to create a Black Lives Matter protest mural on the Majestic Repertory Theatre building in downtown Las Vegas. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada tribal nations keep their people safe from coronavirus - Video
Tribal members at Walker River Paiute Tribe's Walker River Indian Reservation in Schurz and at Reno-Sparks Indian Colony's Hungry Valley Reservation take care of their own in the age of coronavirus. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Victims of the Alpine fire discuss life after 6 months - Video
Residents who were victims in the Alpine Apartment Fire on Dec. 21 recall what happened and some of the struggles they are facing after six months. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Family welcomes baby during pandemic in Spain - Video
Henderson native Air Force Maj. Chris Stein, stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain, and his wife dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, diagnoses for COVID-19 and having an unexpected home birth for their third child. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jara to present school reopening plan to CCSD board next week - VIDEO
A much-anticipated plan for reopening doors at the Clark County School District will come before the board next week, according to Superintendent Jesus Jara.
Foster mom corrals an armful of kids at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children - Video
Tytaliayah Parker cares her five foster kids and her biological daughter at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Boulder City. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Resident of apartment complex where fire occurred said he didn’t hear fire alarm - Video
Travis Mattsson, who has lived at Siegel Suites Las Vegas Boulevard for a year, said he didn’t hear a fire alarm in his unit. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vigil held in downtown Las Vegas - VIDEO
The Forced Trajectory Project conducted a vigil downtown on Saturday evening to honor those lost to police violence. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Volunteer drivers deliver restaurant-quality meals to those in need - Video
Graffiti Bao, a restaurant, is partnering with Delivering with Dignity to provide restaurant-quality meals to those in need. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Black Lives Matter, anti-racism rally held in Las Vegas - Video
More than 1,000 people protested peacefully in Kianga Isoke Palacio Park near Doolittle Community Center in the Historic Westside neighborhood of Las Vegas on Friday night, June 5. It was a Black Lives Matter rally and candlelight vigil for George Floyd and other black Americans who have died in confrontations with police. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Soul City WiFi Project brings free internet to Historic Westside Las Vegas - Video
Steven Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation speaks at a press conference about the creation of a free WiFi network to help underserved communities, followed by a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Academic Excellence Awards 2020 - Video
The Las Vegas Review Journal's Academic Excellence program is designed to recognized 1st thru 12th grade students in Southern Nevada who exhibit academic achievement, community involvement, and leadership in and out of the classroom.
A motorist driving recklessly lost control of their vehicle and smashed into a house
Las Vegas police said a motorist driving recklessly lost control of their vehicle, which then smashed into a house at 401 South Torrey Pines Drive. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @reviewjournal
Las Vegas police briefing on shooting during Black Lives Matter protest
Sheriff Joe Lombardo briefs the media on shootings during the Black Lives Matter protest that left one man dead and a Metro officer in critical condition on Monday, June 1, 2020.
Areas of Red Rock Canyon reopen - Video
The BLM Southern Nevada District reopened access to areas of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on June 1, 2020, including; Red Rock Canyon Scenic Drive, Red Rock Overlook, Late Night Trailhead, Red Spring Boardwalk, Calico Basin and Kraft Mountain Trailheads. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rebel store looted
The manager of a Rebel gas station talks about looting at the Tropicana and Koval store over the weekend. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fremont Street Experience is counting down to reopening - Video
A countdown clock is running for the reopening of the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas on Friday afternoon, May 29, 2020. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Train carrying decommissioned nuclear reactor passes through Las Vegas - VIDEO
The train carrying a decommissioned nuclear reactor vessel from Southern California is passing through Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Southern Nevada Health District COVID-19 update
Southern Nevada Health District staff conduct a video briefing to provide updates about the public health agency’s COVID-19 response in Clark County.
Neighborhood rallies behind grad amid the coronavirus lockdown
Riley Lynn Thacker's mom put a sign in their yard to congratulate her daughter completing her senior year and neighbors followed suit. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)