A Call No Property Manager Wants to Receive

The Mars Hotel fire - photo by Larry Lutz, (7/17/99)

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The call came about 6 A.M. on the morning of Friday, July 17th, 1999.  It was from my boss, Rick.

“Have you seen the news?”

I hadn’t.

“There’s a fire at The Fairmont.  Get down here as soon as you can.”

I hung up the phone and turned on the TV.  All four local news stations were broadcasting a fire consuming The Fairmont, a 97-unit apartment building that provided non-subsidized, low-income housing.


Shortly after college, I’d worked my way into a residential property manager position.  My portfolio consisted of garden-style complexes, downtown apartments and homeowner’s associations.  My boss, Rick, was a senior property manager with years of experience.  

I  was Rick’s back-up on The Fairmont. 


The roof of The Fairmont (L) on fire - photo by Larry Lutz, (7/17/99)

The roof of The Fairmont (L) on fire - photo by Larry Lutz, (7/17/99)

When I arrived downtown, I parked several blocks away.  Police cars stopped access as firetrucks were stationed near the burning buildings.  Firefighters sprayed water as residents lined the streets, some crying, some pacing. 

I found Rick and we stood for a bit, just watching as flames shot out of The Fairmont.  It was a helpless feeling. 

The adjacent Mars Hotel, a recently shut-down casino with a history of problems, was already completely destroyed by the fire.  Another neighboring building, The Glen-Dow Hair Academy was also being damaged by the blaze.  The furniture store next door, Dania, was being hurt not by flames, but by smoke and water.    The whole block was a mess.

Rick and I walked to an office building nearby, the Paulsen Center, which The Fairmont’s landlord also owned.  We went up to the roof of the sixteenth floor and watched as the fire was fought.

The Farimont on fire - photo by Larry Lutz, (7/17/99)

The Farimont on fire - photo by Larry Lutz, (7/17/99)

Rick and his fiancé were scheduled to leave for Las Vegas the next morning.  They were getting married and vacationing for a week.  It was then I realized The Fairmont would be my responsibility until he returned. 

The fire fighting continued through the day.  The Red Cross arrived and found temporary lodging for those residents requesting it.  Fortunately, everyone survived the fire.

A dozen members from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) arrived the next day to begin an investigation into the fire.  The group that arrived was part of the same team that investigated the bombings in Oklahoma City and at The World Center.  They brought along a specially trained dog to identify accelerants.  They were joined by investigators from the Spokane Fire Department and the Valley Fire District.

Two days later, our property management office set about finding new apartments for the residents displaced by the fire.  They were relocated as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Under the watch of the fire marshal, I guided residents back to their apartments to recover personal affects.  A building representative had to be with a resident at all times and that duty fell to me and a couple other managers who volunteered.  There was no power to the building so neither lights nor the elevator were functioning.  With a hard hat and flashlight, I climbed various flights of stairs amid the lingering smell of smoke.  The higher we were in the building, the worse the damage.  On the lower levels, it was mostly water damage.  However, the top level was completely burned and the roof non-existent.  

It was heart-breaking to watch people dig through their apartments and search for anything from their “old life.”  Many of the residents on the upper levels didn’t recover much.  None of those people had renter’s insurance but even if they did, there are always things that can't be replaced.

I repeated that same experience for the rest of the week.  On a daily occurrence, I would provide the company’s ownership updates on how things were progressing with The Fairmont.  That was the most communication I’d ever had with “upper management” at that point.  I was also in contact with The Fairmont’s owners several times a day, updating them on all aspects of daily activity.  They wanted to be kept in the loop on everything and who can blame them?  Their asset had literally just gone up in flames. 

When Rick returned, he took over the lead again and I went to back to my regular duties.

Over the next couple months. it was determined there was an ignitable liquid found in the basement of abandoned Mars Hotel.  Though it was ruled arson, it was never determined who started the fire.

At the time of the incident, The Mars Hotel was embroiled in a legal quagmire.  In 1997, the former owners of the building had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reorganize their debt.  However, when they failed to pay their taxes, a judged converted the Chapter 11 to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy (asset liquidation) in 1998.  The building was later abandoned by the bankruptcy trustee in December 1998 and legal status reverted back to the partnership.  The first lien holder refused to foreclose on the property in 1999.  Then the fire occurred.  The partnership appeared to still be the owner, but getting them to pay was going to be a problem.

After two months, the city decided to clean up the rubble pile left behind by The Mars Hotel.  Its clean-up had delayed the renovation of The Glen Dow Hair Academy as a partial wall was still up against Glen Dow’s building.  The city wasn’t going to recover the funds from the clean-up but it was the right thing to do to get that city block under renovation.

It took some time, but The Fairmont was later sold and renovated into The Morgan Building, a beautiful condo project.  It is hard to fathom the transformation, not only from the fire, but also the apartment community where we dealt with a continual parade of weekly problems.

The lot where The Mars Hotel had been was purchased and redeveloped into a parking garage for The Morgan Building condo owners.  The Glen Dow Hair Academy building was restored and has thrived and Dania Furniture also has done well.

I've kept a file of newspaper clippings and the photos I purchased from Larry Lutz, a resident in The Fairmont who lost almost everything that morning.  This was the biggest experience I went through as a property manager so I didn’t want to lose those memories or those lessons I learned.

LESSONS LEARNED

1.  Get Insurance. 

It’s obvious you need insurance as a property owner.  If you have a mortgage, your lender will require it. 

However, I’m really advising the tenants to get renter’s insurance.  It doesn’t cost much and will help in the event something like this occurs.  I only had one ‘Fairmont’ event in my property management career, but I had another apartment fire that burned a couple units.  I’ve had several broken water pipes that ruined apartments and their resident’s ‘stuff.’  The landlord’s insurance covers repairing the actual building but it doesn’t cover replacing the renter’s personal items. 

Each of these events were the same for the renters involved, though.  None of them had renter’s insurance.

2.  Protect your memories.  

Most of us now have access to cloud-based platforms to store our digital photos.  Unfortunately, the Fairmont residents didn’t. 

But what about those items you don’t want to lose.  Think about those for a moment.  Is it a memento of a grandparent or child?  Why don’t you take a quick photo of it and store it on the cloud?  That way if it gets damaged or stolen, you’ll still have at least an image of it.

3.  Have a back-up plan on your property. 

Rick was lucky when he headed out of town.  I was there and could coordinate with the owners, the city, the fire marshal, the tenants and many more.  I know he worried about the property while he was on his honeymoon, but imagine what it would have been like if he didn’t have a back-up?

I’m lucky in that I have a partner in my commercial projects who can back-me up on everything we do.  If there is ever an emergency while I’m out of town, he can handle it for me.  This is often why property owners hire professional property management companies - so they have depth of personnel coverage.

4.  Remember what matters most.

In the end, it was just stuff (even the buildings).  No one died in the fire.  A couple of firefighters suffered minor injuries, but it was truly lucky that no one was seriously injured.  It could have been worse, much worse.

Interested in seeing more photos of this event?
Jump over to Pinterest to see more photos of the fire
and what the Fairmont looks like today.

Mars Hotel Fire Pinterest Board

What about you?  Are you a property manager or owner who's
experienced a Fairmont event (or worse)? I'd love to hear about your experience.