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‘I can’t breathe’: 911 calls reveal chaos of Alpine apartments fire

Updated January 17, 2020 - 2:03 pm

The deadliest residential fire in city history was out less than a minute after Las Vegas firefighters first entered the Alpine Motel Apartments, but thick smoke from the fire swelled rapidly — enabled by poor ventilation in the rundown building, according to newly released audio recordings from that morning.

“Oh, I can’t breathe,” 49-year-old Sandi Jones, gasping for air, said to a Las Vegas Fire Department dispatcher during the initial 911 call, which came in at 4:13 a.m. on Dec. 21.

A panicked voice in the background can be heard yelling, “Get out, get out!”

“I was choking and gagging,” Jones recalled Friday. She lived in Unit 10 on the ground floor of the Alpine, a three-story building with 41 units at 213 N. Ninth St.

Her 911 call was among roughly three hours of 911 audio and radio traffic recordings that city officials released this week to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The Metropolitan Police Department, which has opened a criminal investigation into the blaze, denied a similar request from the Review-Journal for its calls and radio traffic.

While still on the phone with the dispatcher that morning, Jones managed to escape, and told the dispatcher that “the place is going up in smoke, and there’s people trapped.”

Four minutes after Jones alerted authorities of the blaze, the first Fire Department unit arrived at the Alpine, followed by a fire engine at 4:18 a.m. and an ambulance two minutes later, according to the recordings.

But despite the Fire Department’s quick response time, the pre-dawn fire in downtown Las Vegas left six people dead and 13 injured — five critically, including a pregnant woman who fell two stories while trying to escape.

‘God woke me up’

Jones was asleep when the fire broke out, but suddenly, she said, she was jolted awake.

“God woke me up and got me out of there,” she told the Review-Journal on Friday. “I’m sure of it.”

She heard a loud noise outside and, thinking that someone was trying to break into the building, Jones stuck her head outside her window.

Instead of a burglar, she found black smoke pouring out of the window of Unit 8, located next to her unit. Jones grabbed a pack of cigarettes, called 911, then ran down the hall toward the front exit.

Jones said Friday that she isn’t sure how long the fire might have been burning before she made the 911 call, but by the time of her escape, she said, the hallway already was blanketed by the smoke.

About 10 minutes after the department’s arrival, a firefighter relayed over the scanner, “We have no heat, lots of smoke,” according to the recordings.

Still, residents were trying to escape the smoke from their windows, unable to get past a bolted rear exit on the ground floor and the smoke in the hallways and stairwells.

“We have occupants hanging from I believe the second or third story,” one firefighter relayed over the scanner.

Another said, “We have three victims out the window, one with serious smoke inhalation,” according to the recordings, which echo a frenzied scene described by many survivors.

Miranda Smith, a MedicWest paramedic who responded to the fire, told the Review-Journal this week, “We saw the chaos going on, people hanging out of their windows for dear life. We saw a lot of children who watched their home burn down right before Christmas.”

Nearly 50 people were displaced, and many are now struggling to find new homes for the same reason they ended up at the rundown apartments: a lack of affordable housing in the Las Vegas Valley.

Jones has been staying at the Siena Suites Hotel on Boulder Highway, getting little to no sleep as she struggles to find something more permanent.

‘Check her pulse’

At least five more people called 911 to report the fire, including a man named Dominic, who told a dispatcher that he was inside a building near the Alpine and had run outside to help.

His call captured the moment when DeJoy Wilson, three months pregnant at the time, fell after losing her grip on a knotted bedsheet that her 29-year-old husband, Johnathan, had fashioned into a rope.

“Don’t go in there, OK? We’re coming as fast as we can,” the dispatcher instructs. “They’re on their way. Get everyone away from the building.”

But Dominic does not respond to the dispatcher, distracted by the injured pregnant woman. Instead a mix of panicked voices and screams can be heard in the background.

“Check her pulse, check her pulse, check her pulse,” Dominic yells. “She’s pregnant. Check her pulse.”

“What’s going on?” the dispatcher asks.

“It’s a fire. It’s a fire,” Dominic says. “People are jumping out of the third and second floors. This lady’s pregnant, and I think she hit her head bad.”

Wilson, 23, suffered a broken back and ribs, and two days after the fire, she and her husband thought she might have miscarried when she started to bleed. But as of Wednesday, she told the Review-Journal, her baby was OK although she was still recovering from her injuries.

Notifying building’s owner

Nearly three hours after the fire broke out, according to the audio recordings, the Fire Department was still working to identify and contact the Alpine’s owner — later identified as Adolfo Orozco, who has owned the 41-unit building since 2013 under the Las Vegas Dragon Hotel LLC.

“Hi, it’s the Fire Department,” a dispatcher, trying several phone numbers for the owner, says in a voicemail message. “We have an apartment fire at 213 N. Ninth. If you are the owner or maintenance of this apartment, we are still on scene at 7 a.m. Dec. 21. Please call us or respond to that location.”

It wasn’t clear when Orozco learned of the fire, or at what time he arrived at the Alpine that day, if at all. His attorney, Dominic Gentile, said on Wednesday that he did not have that information.

Orozco hired Gentile, a high-profile attorney, three days after the fire.

On Dec. 22 and Dec. 23, investigators noted 42 fire code violations at the property, including an exit door bolted from the outside, security bars in a sleeping area without an emergency release, and missing or defective smoke detectors in at least 14 locations throughout the building, according to inspection records obtained last week by the Review-Journal.

The Police Department’s investigation, led by its homicide section, is ongoing. No charges had been filed in connection with the fire as of Friday, court records show.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writers Mary Hynes and Jeff German contributed to this report.

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