Sunday, February 23, 2003

750 flee Westin fire

Guests in PJ's forced out in the cold

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fans of the rock band Phish and hundreds of other Westin Hotel guests fought off visions of the Rhode Island nightclub disaster when they woke Saturday morning to pounding on doors and the smell of smoke.

Westin guards successfully alerted them to a four-alarm fire that started in a second-floor kitchen before igniting grease built up along the lengthy second- and fourth-floor ventilation ducts shortly before 8 a.m.

While the flames remained confined within the ducts, smoke crept to every one of the hotel's 17 floors, scaring the 750 occupants. All were safely evacuated via smoky hallways and stairwells.

"I was terrified. My heart was pounding. I was expecting there to be a big blaze at the end of the stairs," said Elizabeth Ray, 24, a Phish fan from Lexington. She grabbed her bags after someone banged on her door about 8:15 a.m. She could see and smell smoke.

Ray and other guests spilled out of the Fifth Street hotel as 85 Cincinnati firefighters took command.

Firefighters kept the hotel empty for three hours. The guests, including some of the 32,000 Phish fans that had tickets to the band's Friday and Saturday shows at the U.S. Bank Arena, huddled on Fountain Square. Some still sporting their pajamas, they watched the firefighters work in drizzling rain. Others peered from Starbuck's, Bruegger's bagel shop and other restaurants.

Michael Altvater, 22, of Dayton, Ohio, thought of Rhode Island - where 96 died in a nightclub fire - as he and his friends rushed from their 13th-floor hotel room. They stayed awake hours after the Phish concert but moved quickly after they learned of the hotel fire.

"It was a bit unnerving considering everything going on," he said.

Alarm also struck District Chief Steve Kluesener. Because the fire was in the ventilation ducts, the flames were not easily accessible.

"It was a very serious fire," he said. "It was just very difficult chasing down the fire. We had no idea where it was headed."

According to the chief, cooks for The Albee, the hotel's restaurant, had started making morning meals when flames broke out on one of the gas stovetops.

While the kitchen's extinguishing system doused the visible flames, the fire already had spread to the grease spots in the ventilation ducts. The fire, which caused an estimated $250,000 in damage, shot up a third-floor shaft and then attacked the fourth-floor ventilation ducts.

They traveled laterally to the fourth-floor's west side, causing firefighters to shut down a stairwell because of the heavy smoke.

Laura Wainer, Andy Siegel and Alex Herring traveled from Atlanta to see Friday night's Phish show at U.S. Bank Arena. Afterward, the friends and self-pronounced Phish Heads returned to the Westin and stayed up until 6 a.m.

Two hours later, they were rushing through the hotel, hurriedly layering themselves in wool hats and sweaters.

"When you see the band run out of the hotel, you run, too," Wainer said.


Related fire stories:
Firefighters hurt at blaze
Back-to-back fires keep crews busy
Related Phish stories:
Phish Saturday Concert Review
Phish Friday Concert Review
Phish concert a festival

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