Friday, May 30, 2003 | 11:19 a.m.
Federal and local investigators were joining forces today to try to determine the cause of the three-alarm blaze that destroyed the historic Moulin Rouge, the city's first racially integrated casino.
The U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives activated its national response team, bringing 18 special agents to work with nine investigators from the Las Vegas Fire Department, said Keith Heinzerling, ATF resident agent in charge of the agency's Las Vegas office.
The investigation could take a week or more, Heinzerling said Thursday.
The fast-moving fire caused more than $1 million in damage, Las Vegas Fire Chief David Washington said. No firefighters or nearby residents were seriously injured in the fire.
The origin and the cause of the fire that destroyed the 48-year-old historic landmark will be difficult to determine, authorities said.
The local fire department invited the ATF team to investigate the blaze because of the amount of the damage and because of the historic significance of the building, Washington said.
"They deal with (these kinds of cases) on a day-to-day basis," Washington said after announcing the joint investigation.
Investigators said that at this time they do not believe the fire was intentionally set, but that could change.
"I don't know how long the assessment will take," Washington said. Until fire crews douse hot spots, and until it's safe to enter the building, the investigation cannot begin, he said.
The building continued smoldering this morning.
Washington said it was rare for Las Vegas to ask for federal help in fire investigations.
Heinzerling said "the task at hand is enormous."
"If it was an arson, there should be some clues," Heinzerling said.
The Moulin Rouge's walls were so unstable on Thursday that local fire investigators could not get inside the casino's blackened shell to begin sifting through the ashes.
"It's a question of safety," Washington said.
However, ATF agents are trained to put clues together that local investigators might miss, fire department spokesman Tim Szymanski said.
"The investigators are like the CSI (crime scene investigators) of the fire department," he said, adding a lot of evidence burned up in the blaze.
Firefighters arrived shortly after 1:15 a.m Thursday and found heavy black smoke and 50-foot flames.
"It really took off," Szymanski said.
"It was the perfect conditions for a fire," Szymanski said, noting that the casino was under renovation and there was furniture, carpeting and other materials in the building that fed the fire.
The fire flared again about 3:30 p.m. Thursday as a fire crew aimed a hose into the heart of the casino.
Residents of the apartments behind the Moulin Rouge and officials from CBC Financial Corp. and Moulin Rouge Development Corp., the two companies planning redevelopment efforts for the property, said they believed drug dealers from the surrounding neighborhood caused the fire.
Katherine Duncan, an administrator with CBC Financial Corp., said that one month ago her company put up a fence around the property, essentially turning the casino and adjacent apartment complex -- once the casino hotel -- into a gated community.
The fence was an effort to stem drug sales on the property, she said.
"Mostly drug sales is the war we've been fighting," she said.
Executives with Moulin Rouge Development Corp. said they share the suspicion.
"Over the last eight months we have been on the property, involved in cleaning up the criminal activity," said Rod Bickerstaff, general counsel for Moulin Rouge Development Corp. "We've made several major attempts to clean up the property."
He said he thinks there is a "strong possibility" that drug dealers started the blaze in retribution for those cleanup efforts.
Moulin Rouge Development Corp. was to close on a deal to buy the property today.
More than 100 people were evacuated and accounted for, but about 50 apartment residents had to stay at the Dula Recreation Center, blocks away at Bonanza Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, American Red Cross spokeswoman Sharon Tutrone said.
Cots, food and clothing were available at Dula, she said.
If anyone cares to contribute funds to help the displaced people, they can call the Red Cross Southern Nevada Chapter office at 791-3311 or bring donations to the office at 3672 N. Rancho Drive near Gowan Road.
Apartment residents who live in the former Moulin Rouge hotel awoke to a wall of flames and smoke.
The Desert Breeze Apartment complex west of the former hotel was ringed with yellow police tape Thursday night.
"I was smoked out, me and my son," Annette Bradey, one of the Desert Breeze residents, said.
Bradey said she left for work at 5 a.m., and was returning about 7 p.m. Thursday, exhausted. "I didn't get much sleep," she said. "I've been up almost all night."
Her neighbor, Joann Ostrowski, heard children's voices after 1 a.m. There's a curfew at the complex, so Joann and her husband, Jerry, got up to investigate, she said.
"The whole thing was engulfed in flames," Joann Ostrowski said, recalling the sight of the hotel from her living room window.
The Ostrowskis packed their car in case of an evacuation.
"The first thing I put in the car was this beautiful gown for my granddaughter's christening this July," she said. "I said, this is not going down with the fire."
Ostrowski said she saw one woman standing in the parking lot in the middle of the night wrapped in a blanket.
"I guess it's lucky we all survived," she said.
Four former residents of the hotel's apartments tried to get into their rooms and were arrested by Metro Police and apartment security guards on charges of trespassing, Bridget McGann, a property manager at Desert Breeze, said.
"Who knows why they wanted to go in," she said.
By nightfall a chain link fence encircled the smoldering site to keep people away from the danger zone.
Launce Rake contributed to this report.