Six Dead, Possibly More in Mizpah Fire

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Crews began shoring up the wreckage of charred hotel Thursday to allow investigators to begin retrieving bodies and perhaps more victims after at least six people died in the city's deadliest fire in more than 40 years.

Beams were being installed in the three-story brick building to support the second floor to allow fire crews back into the rubble of the 84-year-old Mizpah Hotel in the downtown casino district.

Stacks of timbers and plywood were piled on the street in front of the building, and a fire department spokesman said it could take at least two days to make the structure safe enough to enter all three floors.

Authorities said at least five bodies remained in the burned-out hotel after a deliberately set fire swept through the structure Tuesday night. At least 30 other people were injured, three critically.

Police arrested Valerie Moore, 47, and accused her of setting a mattress on fire that started the blaze. The casino cook, who was
paroled last year after serving 17 years in a Nevada prison for second-degree murder, was booked on suspicion of first-degree arson and six counts of murder.

Some residents jumped from windows as the flames swept through
the structure in minutes. Others were rescued by firefighters with ladders and by city workers with a cherry picker. Survivors said they were lucky to escape with their lives.

"Had it been another five minutes, chronologically, it would have been two or three dozen deaths, unquestionably," said Thomas Omahen, one of about 50 residents dislocated from the $150-a-week, mostly live-in hotel.

One tenant died after he jumped about 30 feet from a second-floor window.

Another survived after sleeping about four hours through the blaze, said Steve Purcell, the hotel's front desk clerk.

"If you can believe it, he didn't hear the alarms or the fire trucks," Purcell said. "They found out about him after the fire was put out."

Hotel tenant Larry Madsen, 49, said the motive for the fire baffles him. "I can't understand why anyone would do something like this,"
Madsen said. "I think they should lock up whoever did it and throw away the key. Everything I worked so hard to get is gone."

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined Reno fire and police investigators in the search for clues and any additional witnesses, fire spokesman Steve Frady said.

"We requested ATF's assistance because a fire of this magnitude and consequence is a priority to our department," Reno Fire Chief Paul Wagner said Thursday.

Purcell said an assistant manager tried to put out the blaze with an extinguisher but it was too late. He questioned the fire department's response time, saying he thought it should have been faster because lives were at stake. The hotel is a block away from the downtown fire station.

"I feel it was an excessively long time between the calls and the response," Purcell said. "And when they arrived on the scene, it took, in my opinion, a long time to get water on the fire."

Frady said it took a little more than three minutes for the first truck to arrive, and rescue efforts began immediately after that. No records were immediately available when a second truck's crew began firefighting efforts, he said.

"The first priority was preservation of life and they (first crew) went into a rescue mode to help people out of that building," Frady said.

"When you have an emergency affecting you personally and you want the help to arrive, it seems a long time it gets there regardless of the reality of the fact that it's just a couple of minutes," Frady added.


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