The Golden Hotel Fire: Fifty Years Later

RENO, NV - Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of one of Reno's most destructive fires.

A half century later, its lessons mark how far we've come in fire protection and the potential danger that remains.

Early in the morning of April 3, 1962, maintenance workers were welding in the basement of what was then one of Reno's three largest hotels.

A faulty valve or gauge on the acetylene tank blew and erupted into flame.

Maintenance workers tried to put it out with fire extinguishers, but soon it was into the ground floor where a new car was parked as a jackpot prize.
It caught fire, soon the flames were racing through three floors of the hotel.

There were no sprinkler systems, in fact, no central alarm. Some guests learned there was a fire when they called the front desk to check on the time.

When they tried to leave they found the hallways choked with smoke. Unlike today there was no standard for exit signs. Some were trapped.

There was no lack of heroes that day. Fire and policemen guided a number of people to safety. An elevator operator made repeated trips saving as many as 40. Even dog from a showroom act was credited with alerting his fellow performers.

Lacking today's command structure firemen improvised as best they could. Fire hoses poured water on the fire from the seven-story Harolds Club next door. A forest service plane dropped 250 gallon loads of water from the air.

But building itself presented some big obstacles..

The Golden had been built in 1905, but a modern facade had been added including louvers over upper floor windows which blocked escape for those inside, and efforts to get water on the flames.

The city building department had objected to the louvers, but there was no code against them. Fifty years have brought changes.

The fire codes today are significant compared with what they used to be," says Battalion Chief Bob Knoll of the Reno Fire Department. "I'm not sure back in 1962 there were fire codes or if there were they certainly weren't what they are now."

A construction crane working nearby was brought in to knock holes in the louvers.

Those efforts couldn't save the building. The Golden collapsed on its self. Only exterior walls still stood. Six people were dead.

The hotel was rebuilt, but the owners soon ran short on cash. It was leased to its neighbor becoming the base from which Harrah's Hotel Casino eventually rose.

Today there's nothing there to mark the tragedy, but barely a block away there's a memorial to the victims of a more recent, even deadlier fire.

The Mizpah Hotel literally stood in the shadow of the Golden as it burned. Forty four years later on Halloween night 2006, it went up in flames. Twelve people died.

Bob Knoll, ironically the son in law of that crane operator who helped fight the Golden Fire, was the incident commander on the Mizpah.

An old building like the Golden in lacked modern fire protection.

"The Mizpah was always our nightmare," says Knoll. Today he says it was his best and worst fire. Worst because 12 people died, best because his crews saved 31 that night.

If there were lessons learned in the Golden fire, they didn't prevent the Mizpah. Neither did the fire that destroyed the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 1980.

New laws passed in the wake of the MGM mandated sprinkler systems and made Nevada's hotels perhaps the safest anywhere, but there were exceptions. Some older buildings like the Mizpah were grandfathered.

If ownership changed hands sprinklers might be required, until then they were not.

Knoll says there are still some older multi-story residential buildings around Reno, but none pose the danger the Mizpah or Golden did.

"I don't see properties like that around. There's certainly an awareness on the owners part and we've got the fire codes to protect as well."

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