Investigators working with attorneys involved in civil suits against the Alpine Motel Apartments’ owner began examining the site of the deadly fire on Wednesday morning.
Men in white protective suits were seen entering the building, while attorneys for the plaintiffs and defense remained on site. Lawyer Robert Eglet, who represents 41 former residents, persuaded District Court Judge Rob Bare during a civil hearing last week to allow investigators to conduct three days of inspections at the site of the fire, which killed six people on Dec. 21.
“It’s a big scene; it’s a big building,” said Benjamin Wilson, who represents some of the families of those who died, including the family of 57-year-old Tracy Ann Cihal. “We’re having to recreate these stories individually for everyone.”
The attorneys for the plaintiffs brought in Forensic Investigations Group, a Louisiana-based company, to examine the scene, which could take up to three days, Wilson said.
Wednesday consisted of making a 3-D scan of the floor of the building so that investigators can work toward determining where and how the fire started. Investigators are searching for evidence that includes “anything and everything” that contributed to people dying in the fire, Wilson said.
During last week’s hearing, Bare instructed Alpine lawyers to move all of the residents’ belongings to a secure location after asbestos inside the building is cleaned up.
“These people aren’t going back into that building,” the judge said.
Authorities opened the investigation in the wake of the deadly Dec. 21 fire, which also left 13 injured and dozens displaced. Investigators noted more than 40 potential fire code violations, including a rear exit door that had been bolted shut.
As of Wednesday, no criminal charges had been filed in the case.
Lawyers provided letters to the judge last week that show the Metropolitan Police Department has completed its evidence gathering and both the police and fire departments do not oppose the former residents getting their property back.
Steven Jaffe, who represents Las Vegas Dragon Hotel LLC and the Alpine’s managing owner, Adolfo Orozco, said last week that the building was broken into three times from Feb. 27 to Feb. 29. While standing outside the boarded-up building Wednesday, Wilson said the break-ins shouldn’t prevent investigators from collecting evidence.
“It’s not uncommon, but it certainly makes things more difficult,” he said about the burglaries’ impact on the investigation.
He also said the investigation needed to start “as soon as possible” for residents to get their belongings.
While attorneys watched the experts enter and exit the building, former Alpine resident Floyd Guenther rode his turquoise bike up to the scene. He said he stops by the buildings once in a while as “a reminder.”
Guenther has previously told the Review-Journal that he worked to save several third-floor residents the night of the fire, and he had submitted two handwritten work orders for his smoke detectors to be replaced during the three months he lived at the building.
The 46-year-old said Wednesday that he still has nightmares about the blaze, when he can hear screaming from his former neighbors.
“I’m just ready for the outcome of the investigation,” he said, staring toward his former home.