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Colo. Hotel Fire Forces Evacuation

November 19, 2000

VAIL, Colo. (AP) _ Fire forced dozens of guests to flee their rooms at a ski resort during the night and caused millions of dollars in damage as overwhelmed firefighters were hampered by a frozen water standpipe.

No guests were reported injured by the blaze that burned for six hours after breaking out late Saturday at the Marriott Vail Mountain Resort. One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion and another for smoke inhalation.

Some guests complained of confusion during the evacuation.

The blaze was quickly spotted by a crew that had gone to the hotel for a medical emergency, said Fire Chief John Gulick. However, Vail had to call in help from half a dozen departments as far away as 60 miles. Damage was estimated at $20 million.

``We were overwhelmed by the fire,″ Gulick said. ``The Vail Fire Department could not have handled it alone. ... had the east stairwell fire standpipe not been frozen, we could have handled the fire quicker and reduced the amount of damage.″

The outside temperature was 12 degrees.

Gulick said he asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to determine the cause of the fire because his investigators were exhausted. ``We have not ruled out any cause or mechanical cause at this point,″ he said.

The 350-room, three-building hotel, which had opened for the ski season on Wednesday, was about 50 percent full. General manager David Shahriari said 116 rooms were lost to the blaze on the fifth and sixth floors of one building, which housed 86 guests before the fire.

Evacuees were relocated to the undamaged buildings or other hotels.

Firefighters and hotel staff went from room to room to alert guests after alarms started about 8:45 p.m., but some guest were upset with the way the evacuation was handled.

``I was a firefighter for years, and this was an absolute farce,″ said James Gaddis of Atlanta. ``They had no idea what was going on. Not a single employee knew what they were doing.″

Gaddis and his wife, Tricia, said they were in their rooms watching TV when smoke alarms went off. They went to the first floor, but said hotel employees told them the problem was only a fireplace flue that had been left open and that it was safe to go back to their rooms.

Tricia Gaddis said they decided to stay on the first floor.

``Then all the guests started coming down, and they shifted us to the lobby (in an adjacent building) and then to the basement,″ she said.

Next, she said, police told everyone to go outside while hotel employees told guests to go to a second-floor restaurant in the building where the fire broke out.

Sara Beth Hill of Kingsport, Tenn., and Ashlee Mayne of Denver said they were shuffled from place to place, eventually ending up in the smoke-filled restaurant.

``They told us we couldn’t leave,″ Hill said. ``The hotel manager said, ’nobody’s going outside. It’s too cold.‴

Shahriari said that hotel employees handled the situation as best they could, and that police, fire and hotel officials were consistent in directing guests to the restaurant.

On Oct. 19, 1998, a series of arson fires caused $12 million in damage on Vail Mountain, damaging chairlifts and destroying a restaurant and ski patrol building. A group called the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for those fires, saying they were protesting Vail’s expansion into habitat of the lynx, declared an endangered species by the state of Colorado. There have been no arrests.

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