By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
The New Mexico Fire Marshal’s office is continuing its investigation into a blaze that destroyed Tucumcari’s Hampton Inn hotel July 16, as concerns voiced by some of the evacuated guests have raised questions about the motel’s fire alarm system.
One of the owners of the Hampton Inn, Neil Patel, said alarm inspection records for the motel were current. Patel said those records have been surrendered to the fire marshal’s office.
The Quay County Sun interviewed occupants of six rooms and guests in only one of the rooms said they heard a fire alarm sound in their quarters. Occupants of the other five rooms said they did not hear an alarm and were alerted to the fire by other guests, police or fire personnel. Guests and police and fire personnel said the motel’s fire sprinkler systems functioned, and that hallways were well lighted during the evacuation.
With 50 of the motel’s 58 rooms occupied when the fire broke out, all guests and employees were evacuated safely, and there were no injuries, Tucumcari Fire Chief Larry Rigdon said. Rigdon declared the incident over about 6 p.m. July 16.
Rigdon said the fire apparently started about 2:30 a.m. July 16 with a lightning strike on the top of the hotel’s southwest corner. He said about 30 firefighters responded from the Tucumcari Fire Department and the Rural 1 Fire District.
One of the motel’s owners, Nitin Bhakta, said that while he was grateful no one was injured, the motel was “a total disaster” as a result of the fire.
Arthur Bishop, a spokesperson for the fire marshal’s office, said the fire’s cause remains unknown. The fire marshal’s office began investigating the blaze immediately, he said.
Bishop said that if a lightning strike were the cause of the blaze, it is possible that the bolt could have disabled circuits to some of the motel’s fire alarms.
The fire marshal’s office does not routinely conduct fire alarm inspections, he said. The office generally relies on inspection reports submitted by contractors whom motel owners hire to maintain fire safety systems.
Rigdon said floors of several third-floor rooms had crashed through to the first floor as firefighters directed streams of water at the flames on the roof through most of the morning.
Fire crews arrived minutes after police did, Bell said.
Assistant Fire Chief Scot Jaynes said he and other firefighters alerted the last of the guests. At one room, he said, the woman inside did not respond to the firefighters’ knock. Firefighters used a master key to open the door and found the guest had chained the door.
“We had to kick in the door,” Jaynes said. They found the guest inside, and escorted her out of the building.
In the end, however, “we got everybody out,” Bell said. Police and hotel employees counted evacuees and compared them to the hotel’s guest register. Guests were moved to the nearby Quality Inn and Super 8.
While none were injured, many guests had to leave luggage, wallets, cash, credit cards and even car keys in the rooms in the rush to get out. Some third-floor guests said there was smoke in the air as they made their way through the hallway.
Tim Hooten of the Tucumcari First Baptist Church said he and other volunteers were helping guests to find clothes, shoes and phones to contact family members.
After the final rooms were checked, Rigdon said, firefighters wearing breathing tanks checked all the rooms and found they had all been cleared. They originally tried to fight the fire from inside, but soon left the building to fight from the outside, he said.
Tucumcari dispatched its ladder truck, which was deployed to allow firefighters to combat the blaze from above.
Bill Peterson of Phoenix, Arizona, said he and his wife Pat, en route to Chicago for a vacation, were in a third-floor room and were alerted of the fire by telephone. Just before they received the call, he said, they heard “popping and banging.”
The third floor, he said, “was full of smoke,” but there was no alarm.
Charles and Cynthia Curtiss of Prescott, Arizona,, said they did hear a fire alarm sound.
“It went off once, then stopped and went off again,” Charles Curtiss said.
Then, he said, they heard footsteps pounding in the hall.
“We thought it was kids coming from a party,” Curtiss said, but when he opened the door, he saw smoke. They evacuated immediately.
At about 11 a.m., the couple were among guests who were waiting for firefighters to emerge from the building with items recovered from each room. Despite this setback on the first night of their planned trip to New England, they said, they intended to push on without passports, wallets, money and even iPads.
Jill Anderson and her husband Brian were headed home to Beaumont, California, from a vacation in Arlington, Texas, with other family members. She and her family were awakened by a grandchild who noticed smoke. As they made their way out of the building, she said, “we knocked on doors to tell people about the fire and made a lot of noise.” They had to evacuate in a hurry, she said, but the people of Tucumcari “have been wonderful.”
Anderson was wearing a hospital uniform that had been rounded up, and another man gave her a jacket, saying “just send it to me” later. “I only had my nightgown on,” she said, “I didn’t even have shoes.”
Jerry Foster, who was returning home to Granbury, Texas, said he and his wife were awakened by police. “The first time they knocked, I thought it was a prank,” he said, “but with the second knock, I knew they meant it.”
He said he pulled a red fire alarm in the hallway but there was no response.
David Service of Cave Creek, Arizona, said he was awakened by “a huge boom” during the lightning storm. He was staying with his wife Margaret and two granddaughters. Service said he saw smoke when he opened the hallway door, and the family evacuated.
Keith McManus and his family were moving from Alexandria, Virginia, to Berkeley, California. He, his wife and three sons, ages 3,6, and 9, were staying on the second floor. They were awakened about 2:30 a.m. and saw police car lights. “I didn’t think anything of it until we saw embers blowing by in the wind,” he said. Then, he said, “we grabbed everything we could and got out.”