Reno hotel fire kills 6; arson suspect described as ‘good tenant’
RENO, Nev. – Investigators sought clues Wednesday about why a woman might have set a mattress on fire in a historic brick hotel in Reno’s downtown casino district, touching off a blaze that killed six and injured dozens.Valerie Moore, 47, a casino cook, was arrested on arson and murder charges in Tuesday night’s fire at the Mizpah Hotel where she lived, police said.Neighbors and hotel workers described Moore as a normally pleasant woman who had been drinking and lost control after an argument with another tenant.”When I see her picture flashed up on the (TV) screen, it looks like she’s a monster, but she was a real nice person,” said Sharon Steele, the hotel’s general manager.”She was a really good tenant. She just had way, way too much to drink yesterday, causing trouble all day,” Steele told The Associated Press.Steven Purcell, 53, the hotel’s front desk clerk, said Moore asked him to escort her from a nearby liquor store to the hotel late Tuesday afternoon.”She seemed lucid and in a good mood at the time,” Purcell told AP. “But sometimes, she was erratic and irrational and possibly self-medicated.”The fire, the city’s deadliest in more than 40 years, broke out about 10 p.m. Tuesday and swept through the three-story building a block from the downtown fire station.Some residents jumped from windows. Others were rescued by firefighters with ladders and city workers with a cherry picker. Resident John Hicks said he saw one person jump from a window and land on a metal trash bin.”The fire crews that arrived on scene performed heroically to get people out of the windows because there was no other way out,” Reno Fire Division Chief Marty Scheuerman said.About 30 people were injured, mostly with minor injuries. But seven people were hospitalized, two in critical condition in Reno. One person was flown to a burn center in California, authorities said.The Mizpah was primarily a residential hotel. Because of its age, it did not have sprinklers but was equipped with smoke alarms, which probably saved many lives, Scheuerman said.Firefighters said they did not know of anyone still missing, but they had yet to search some areas. The roof collapsed, and authorities said the building would have to be shored up.”We’re going to have to go in with big timbers and wood to make it safe enough so it won’t fall down on inspectors and responders,” Scheuerman said.Police Chief Michael Poehlman said the blaze was started when Moore set fire to a mattress in the hotel.Maxie Birch, 42, an acquaintance of Moore who lived down the hall from her, said Moore set fire to a mattress that she leaned against his hotel room door. Moore was angry with Birch over an earlier incident, he said.Moore’s drunken behavior was out of character, Birch said.”She always seemed like a normal, friendly person,” Birch said. “She didn’t seem like a crazy person. But something happened last night to push her over the edge. She just flipped.”Police said 60 to 80 people were inside the 84-year-old, recently renovated hotel when the fire started. It quickly engulfed the north wing of the hotel, near Harrah’s casino, though none of the downtown high-rise hotel-casinos were threatened.Tenant Larry Madsen, 49, managed to climb down a fire escape despite becoming disoriented by thick smoke in his room.”Everything I worked so hard to get is gone,” Madsen said. “All I own now is what you see. But life is more important than things any day. I feel blessed to be alive.”About 50 people were being housed temporarily at a Reno high school by the Red Cross.It was Reno’s deadliest fire since 1962, when six people died at the Golden Hotel, fire department spokesman Steve Frady.The Mizpah was built in 1922 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Fire officials said they did not know whether the building could be saved.”It was just gorgeous, and now it’s all gone,” Steele said.—Associated Press writers Scott Sonner and Martin Griffith contributed to this report.