Updated December 24, 2019 - 11:04 pm
Even with her walker, that’s likely all it would have taken for 61-year-old Cynthia Mikell to get out of the burning three-story apartment building alive early Saturday.
“She would have been the first person out of the building,” Jeremy Gordon, Mikell’s 18-year-old nephew, said in an interview on Christmas Eve.
Mikell lived in unit No. 13 on the ground floor of the aging Alpine Motel Apartments in downtown Las Vegas, the unit closest to the rear exit.
But the door was bolted shut. Mikell was trapped.
Her body would later be found in the hallway near the back door, according to Gordon. She was one of six people killed in the deadliest residential fire in the city’s history. She was so badly burned, it took at least two days for investigators to identify her.
The five other victims were identified Tuesday by the Clark County coroner’s office as Henry Lawrence Pinc, 70; Tracy Ann Cihal, 57; Francis Lombardo Jr., 72; Donald Keith Bennett, 63; and Kerry Baclaan, 46.
The coroner’s office said it could take up to two months to determine the cause and manner of death for the victims.
The blaze left 13 more injured — five critically, including a pregnant woman — and nearly 50 people without a home the week before Christmas.
On Monday, Las Vegas Fire Marshal Robert Nolan said the fire was likely accidental and started in a stove in a first-floor unit, though Metropolitan Police Department homicide detectives are investigating.
Residents told investigators that the 41-unit building, built in 1972, did not have heat and that tenants often used their stoves for warmth in the colder months. Other residents have said their smoke detectors were not functional.
Cihal, another victim, had sought legal help against the complex’s owner, Adolfo Orozco, the week before the fire.
She was concerned about habitability issues and wanted to withhold her rent, said Scotti Hughes, who had been with Cihal about four hours before she died and considered her a “second mom.”
Cihal’s concern centered on a bathroom leak that lasted more than a week and had flooded her main living area. She asked management to address the leak more than once, Hughes said, but her requests were ignored.
Between Dec. 18 and 20, Cihal went to a legal aid center for advice. She also was concerned that her unit had no working smoke detector, Hughes said, and whenever Cihal cooked, the apartment would fill with smoke, forcing her to kick on her A/C and open a window.
“She was a hard-working woman who was a widow and disabled, but it was a roof over her head,” Hughes said of Cihal and the shoddy apartment she had been living in since September. “It was a place to call her own.”
Cihal came home with instructional paperwork and intended to submit a formal complaint to management Saturday, when the deadly fire erupted before dawn. Her body was found in the first-floor hallway, not far from Mikell’s.
Attempts to reach Orozco since the fire have been unsuccessful, and a Tuesday afternoon email to his attorney was not immediately returned.
‘Follow my voice’
Mikell lived two doors down from Gordon and his parents.
On the afternoon before the fire, Gordon stuffed a change of clothes in a backpack and boarded a city bus to North Las Vegas to spend the weekend at his best friend’s house.
“It’s like God was watching over me,” he said Tuesday.
Gordon was asleep when the fire erupted and was woken up by a frantic call from his mother, Laura Edwards, at 4:12 a.m.
Edwards had just gotten home from gambling at El Cortez when she encountered smoke pouring out of the building. She rushed inside, Gordon said, but the thick black smoke in the hallway blinded and choked her.
Somehow, though, she had managed to get to their apartment. She pushed the front door open, yelling to her sleeping husband, “Randy, follow my voice. Follow my voice.”
At the same time, Mikell emerged from the blanket of smoke in the hallway. Edwards, determined to lead the two out of the building, traced her hands along the walls of the hallway toward the front door.
“But when she got out,” Gordon said of his mother, “they weren’t behind her.”
Overcome by the smoke, her husband retreated back into their apartment, hoping to escape through a window. His hand on Mikell’s walker, according to Gordon, he told her, “Keep walking. Just keep walking.”
When he reached the bedroom window, Mikell was gone.
For the next two days, Mikell’s family and Hughes called hospitals across the valley, hoping Cihal and Mikell had survived.
Hughes, who had even called the coroner’s office on Saturday trying to track down Cihal, resorted to filling out a missing person’s report Sunday.
In a lobby at Metro headquarters, the coroner’s office called Hughes back. A woman whose approximate height, age and medical history matched Cihal’s was dead. Gordon’s coroner call came Monday.
“It was heartbreaking. I didn’t want to believe it at first,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Tuesday.
Mikell was like a second mother to him. Since he was born, she had always lived close by.
The two were so close that, at night, Mikell often left her front door cracked open, knowing that her nephew liked to check on her periodically throughout the night.
“She was good, kind,” Gordon said. “She would give until she had no more.”
As of Tuesday, residents had not been allowed back into their apartments. Gordon, who suspects the family lost most if not all of their belongings in the fire, struggled to shake his guilt ahead of his first Christmas without his aunt.
“I should have been there,” he said. “And I know I would have died, because I cared about everyone in that building. I would have tried to get them out.”
Contact Rio Lacanlale at email@example.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Contact Rachel Crosby at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3801. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter.
A GoFundMe has been created to raise money for Cynthia Mikell’s funeral service.
Another GoFundMe page is collecting donations for Tracy Cihal’s service.