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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Illinois: Empress Casino fire

Empress Casino fire spreads; roof collapses

March 20, 2009
By KIM SMITH ksmith@scn1.com


JOLIET — Some 6,000 to 8,000 gallons of water per minute have not been enough to stop the Empress Casino blaze that has spread from the former ballroom east to the entryway.

Water trucks from other area departments are circling in and out of the area, but the fire that started Friday morning has continued to spread. Additional water has been trucked in from as far as two miles away.

Firefighters from Joliet and other departments battling the large fire at the Empress Casino. The fire apparently broke out in part of the casino that is under construction
(John Patsch/Staff Photographer)

Smoke rises from the Empress Casino in Joliet, where a fire started in an area under construction Friday morning.
(Liz Wilkinson Allen/Staff Photographer)


• Casino fire will impact local economy
• Casino in middle of renovation

Fire Chief Joe Formhals said firefighters are concentrating on containing the fire that broke out around 10 a.m. in an area under renovation. Firefighters have four ladder trucks spraying directly into the building, but the smoke keeps pouring out.

General Manager Frank Quigley said it is too soon to tell the extent of the damage and how long it will take to get back the jobs of the 900 casino workers.

The Empress brings in $14 million and $15 million a month.

"This is very disappointing, we were all very excited about our $50 million renovation," Quigley said.

Plans were to add a new French restaurant and a coffee shop.

Joliet City Councilman Tom Giarrante said the fire damage to the Empress Casino is unbelievable and the timing is brutal.

"We are going to have to sit down with the city manager and find out how bad this is going to be," Giarrante said. "We may need to have a special meeting. Thank God no one was hurt. That was a result of a lot of fire drills."

Giarrante had been on the fire scene since 11 a.m.

The renovations may have hampered firefighting efforts with more than one drop ceiling to chop through, which caused the blaze to spread horizontally, Formhals said.

Formhals confirmed that the lack of water has been an issue.

He said an off-duty Joliet firefighter was on the scene around 10 a.m. at the casino on Route 6 when an alarm went off.

The fire started in a kitchen area, Formhals said. Police Lt. Stephen Breen said the fire apparently was started by welders. He says a spark might have hit some grease around the ceiling area, but that it's too soon to say exactly what happened.

Scaffolding and other construction equipment was seen inside the burning wing.

A casino official said smoke more than likely damaged casino walls. Concerns have mounted that the fire might spread to the gaming floor.

Meanwhile, Quigley had told employees they were free to leave. Earlier, Quigley has asked workers to wait and see what developed.

Some employees had purses and keys locked up in the casino. Quigley said the company would provide transportation to those who need it and no one would be allowed inside.

Earlier, Formahals said the blaze was sparked by the construction in an area where new seats were being added. A lot of drywall was being stored in that area as well, he said.

Rarely does the Joliet Fire Department call for assistance but trucks from Troy, Rockdale and other departments started to roll in shortly after noon. Most appeared to be water trucks.

Quigley had spoken to employees who have been gathering under to carport of the hotel.

"All kinds of kudos to you guys for pulling off an extremely professional evacuation," Quigley said. "There were no injuries."

Michelle Bell, marketing director, said there was a $50 million renovation project in the pavilion area with new food outlets under construction.

Smoke from the blaze was visible for miles.

Bob Bennet of Joliet was in the casino around 10 a.m. when a voice came over the PA sytem.

"They told us we had to evacuate because there was a small fire," Bennet said. "Everyone got up and left. It went well, there was no one panicking, no pushing or shoving."

At first, gamblers were told they would be able to get back in after about an hour, but later were informed by security guards that the casino would be closed for the day.

Laura Carter of Orland Park had hoped to cash her $94 voucher but was told the vouchers would be good for about a year.

The 50,000 square-foot casino features 1,100 machines and 20 table games, according to its Web site.
Source: www.suburbanchicagonews.com - Link

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