LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- Guilt and anger. That’s how Catherine Jacobo said she feels when she thinks about the back door at the Alpine Motel Apartments.
She lived there with her fiancé Don Bennett. The back exit door of the three-story building at 9th Street and Ogden Avenue in downtown Las Vegas is how she and Bennett were supposed to escape the morning of Dec. 21.
They were supposed to get married on New Year’s Day.
They were supposed to be together for the rest of their lives.
The door stopped her from what was supposed to be.
“We can do it, we can get it open,” Jacobo said. Those were the last words she said to Bennett.
She believed it, too. Bennett was a Marine veteran and still in good shape. He was the building’s maintenance man, so he knew the apartment well.
“I didn’t want to leave him,” said Jacobo.
But that’s what he wanted.
“’Jump out the window to be safe.’ That’s what he said.”
Jacobo and Bennett lived on the second floor of the Alpine.
The morning of the fire, they said they didn’t hear any smoke alarms. It was just after 4 a.m. when they realized the building was burning. They ran down the back stairwell to the exit door on the first floor but it wasn’t opening.
They couldn’t run to the front door because of the smoke.
“It was getting really thick and I remember it started choking me … Somebody was yelling, ‘oh my God! We’re all going to die!’… Someone else had the idea, hey we’re trapped in the building we’re just going to have to jump out the building from the second floor,” said Jacobo.
A SELFLESS MAN
So, she did. Bennett stayed. The door was bolted shot and Bennett died trying to open it to save himself and others. "Leave no one behind" is a lesson from Bennett’s days as a Marine in 1975. He was 19.
“He told me once, he said, it’s about helping people,” said Jacobo.
He was always helping at the Alpine. He gave away possessions to neighbors who needed or wanted things, including his military jacket.
Jacobo worked at the Alpine, too. She said she and Bennett both tried to do something about the back exit door.
In fact, a lot of people did. A neighbor sent FOX5 a picture of a black bar covering the back exit door. He said he took the picture in the beginning of October. Jacobo said the door was like that for two or three months leading up to the fire.
“It was a fire hazard, big time,” said Jacobo.
Teale Jones and her husband thought so, too. One month before the fire, they went before a judge. They were fighting an eviction notice from the owner of the Alpine, Adolfo Orozco, over rent money. Jones said they told the judge what was going on.
COMPLAINTS ALLEGEDLY IGNORED
“We told him about the fire alarms, we told him about the fire extinguishers … the air vent above the bathroom, there’s no vent - roaches fall down and hit you in the head while you’re sitting on the toilet…We told him about everything,” said Jones.
Jones said the judge told them they were only there to discuss paying rent. Jones and her husband weren’t at the Alpine the night of the fire. They were evicted days before.
“I’m on the third floor, there’s 28 steps. There’s a bolted door and one exit and it’s all the way down at the end of the hallway. That smoke would have killed me, and it would have killed my husband,” said Jones.
Fire investigators found 16 code violations after the fire. The bolted exit door was one them. Inspectors also confirmed there were missing smoke alarms.
Records released by the Las Vegas Fire Marshall show it was the first fire inspection in two years. Since Adolfo Orozco bought the alpine motel in 2013, the building has a history of failing inspections. FOX5 reached out to Orozco and his attorney several times but never heard back.
Records show between March 21, 2016 and April 26, 2017 it failed seven fire inspections. On April 26, under the “result” column it listed that case as “closed” but it still listed violations.
No one from the city would do an on-camera interview. City spokesperson Jace Radke said other than repairs or new construction, fire inspections are complaint driven.
CITY REMAINS TIGHT-LIPPED
FOX5’s request with fire investigators to explain the process of fire complaints and inspections was also denied. Records showed people did complain to the city, some just weeks before the fire.
“The Alpine Fire remains under investigation, so I cannot specifically comment about [those complaints] or the inspection records relating to it,” said Radke.
On November 25, someone complained to city staffers that the outlets were sparking and the oven didn’t work. Records showed code enforcement crews “resolved” that on Dec. 2.
It wasn't clear if anyone ever went to investigative.
"Code enforcement has been out there and made many, many citations ... It was the irresponsibility of the property owner,” said Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman a couple weeks after the fire.
All Jacobo has left of him are small pictures around her new apartment, wilting flowers from his funeral and his bike. Jones still has Bennett’s jacket. Jacobo said she will never ride the bike, and Jones will never fit that jacket, but both are prized possessions.
“That’s Don, you can’t give away Don,” said Jones pointing to Bennett’s jacket. Jacobo said she’ll keep watering his dying flowers just to keep his memory alive.
Mayor Goodman, Las Vegas City Council and other city staff said they don’t want family and friends to lose another Bennett, or any of the other five people who didn’t make it out of the fire.
They’re working on a new mandatory program for property owners and managers that would help keep an eye on older buildings like the Alpine.