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Three Dead, 18 Injured in Miami Beach Hotel Fire

April 6, 1990

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Fire swept through a residential hotel this morning, killing at least three people, injuring 18 and sending scores of mostly elderly residents running into the street, officials said.

Fifteen people were unaccounted-for after the 3 a.m. fire at the Fontana Hotel was brought under control in about five hours, said Assistant Fire Chief John Reed. The hotel is on famed Collins Avenue north of the beach’s trendy art deco district.

″It was incredible,″ said one resident, Joe Marcello, who jumped to safety from a second-floor window. ″Flames were shooting 40 feet in the air.″

Mayor Alex Daoud said the intensity of the three-alarm fire led investigators to suspect arson, but fire officials said the report was speculative.

″We have all the fire units of the city of Miami Beach working on the fire, attempting to get it under control,″ police Detective Jim Hyde said earlier. ″This is definitely the worst I’ve seen.″

Up to 200 residents of the three-story Fontana Hotel and 175 to 200 in the adjacent Prince Michael Hotel, which was threatened for a time, were evacuated, police said.

By early afternoon, authorities were conducting a room-to-room search of the burned building and checking crowds outside the hotel, hospitals and a community center to narrow the list of missing tenants.

Residents said the fire broke out near the elevator shaft in the front of the Fontana, and Hyde said the two bodies were found in the lobby area. He put the number of people injured at 18.

″They’re not able to get inside yet - it’ll be all gone,″ police Sgt. Jim Scarberry said three hours into the fire.

Many of the residents were elderly and infirm, according to Myrtle Jackson, 35, a yearly tenant on the second floor of the Fontana. She said she escaped out the back door after the building’s managers ran through the hallways knocking on doors.

Ms. Jackson said the smoke was too thick and there was no chance to help anyone else - ″no time to be a hero tonight.″

Marcello, her roommate, said he heard his smoke alarm, which was installed to comply with a city ordinance requiring an electronic alarm in every hotel room.

But he said he didn’t realize the situation was serious until Olimpia Mihai, one of the owner-managers, started knocking on doors. By the time he gathered his passport and other papers, he said the hallway was too smoky to risk escape down the stairs.

″I started panicking. I ran back to my room and knocked the window out and just jumped down,″ said Marcello, 32. ″When I dove out the building, there were four cars engulfed in flames.″

He said another second-floor resident broke her window, dropped her baby to a man on the ground and jumped out herself.

About five hours after the blaze began, the building’s roof had collapsed and burning cinders showered down from the remnants of the roof.

Smoke arched hundreds of feet in the early morning sky, partially obscuring oceanfront condominiums.

Long-time residents said the hotel housed between 100 and 200 residents, most of whom rented by the week, month or year. A few vacationers also were believed in the building when the fire broke out. The American Red Cross was busing scores of residents to a nearby shelter.

Spokeswomen at St. Francis, Mount Sinai and South Shore hospitals said 18 people were taken to their emergency rooms, and four were expected to be admitted. Many were suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.

″I have all people who have lost everything in the fire, including their medication, so we’re treating them for whatever there individual needs are,″ said South Shore emergency room supervisor Carol Perlaza.

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