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‘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.

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