On the early evening of April 19, 2012, two buildings were lost: The First National Bank building and the old John Wesley Hardin building.
As a group of people were enjoying the night air near the Plaza Theatre, the unmistakable smell of smoke began floating through the city’s heart. Then, as the senses followed the smell and the tendrils back to their source, the first flames could be seen, and the smoke grew thicker, filling the sky.
As people began to realize which building was on fire, the frantic calls to 911 began.
The first units were dispatched, as cell phones began to click photos and capture video of a piece of El Paso’s history that was now being consumed by flames.
The fire was relentless, burning through the night. No matter how much water was used, the firemen could not quell the flames.
Countless thousands of gallons of water converged on what crews believed to be the base of the fire. Still, the flames grew.
While some of the brave men continued the barrage of water, others tried to gain entry into the building. Confronted with flames, debris, smoke and the 100+ year architecture and additions, they reached a point where they could no longer advance.
Debris began to rain down on them, and worried that collapse was imminent, they were forced to abandon the effort.
Since the fire in 2012, theory after theory has been put forth as to the cause. The most prevalent of these involves the idea that some unknown person with nefarious intentions set the fire purposely.
In trying to determine the most likely scenario, I met with Nick Torres, an investigator with the El Paso Fire Department. I discovered that the answer is a combination of several factors, all of which could have been easily corrected, had the right steps been taken.
“We have a problem,” Investigator Torres said.
As he continued to explain, I realized the problem is much larger than originally believed. While the fire served as a wake-up call for many within the city, time and distance from the event have seemingly lulled them to sleep again.
So, who is to blame for the fire?
Some believe the blame falls squarely at the feet of the property owner, and is shared with the individual business owners who rented spaces at 100 East San Antonio Avenue. Still others blame the city for their lax rules regarding the buildings.
The various business owners at this location, when renting the spaces within, were signing what’s known as a Tier Three Lease. Anyone who has ever rented a space, whether for residential or commercial use, signs a standard lease wherein the property owner is responsible for all maintenance.
However, in a Tier Three Lease, the property owner can offer a substantial savings on rent because those renting the property are now responsible for maintenance.
Maintenance, in the case of these types of leases, is far more than just fixing a blocked toilet, or painting the walls. Maintenance also includes all electrical work, plumbing, or anything else the property may need.
Think of it like this: you have a business owner that signs a Tier Three Lease, now being forced to decide between calling a qualified electrician to repair lights or outlets that are no longer working; or having a family member, friend, or someone else do the work under the table and without permits, insurance, or proper training.
If that same business owner is having a hard time making ends meet, he may try to cut costs.
However, if that’s the case for just one building, one location in all Downtown El Paso where everything from electrical to plumbing is cobbled together, it’s no big deal, right?
Let’s go back to the property at 100 East San Antonio.
About a month before the fire, the city building inspectors received a complaint from the El Paso Electric Company (EPE) about a new electrical drop that was added to the building that they noticed during one of their routine inspections.
EPE is not required to do the actual installation of electrical drops, so long as a qualified electrician has the proper permits; however there didn’t seem to be proper paperwork submitted for this addition.
In fact, a search of permits via the Citizens Access Portal shows only two electrical permits issued in 2012, and both of those were for AC units.
Then, there were modifications to the building. When were they done? Where were the permits for them? I’ve not been able to find the answers to those questions. And yet, those modifications may have led to the building’s eventual destruction.
A couple of examples would be the roof of the building and stairs that were added at some unknown time in the past, however the roof is a significant issue.
If you’ve ever seen a video of the fire and the fire department spraying water on the top of the building, then you would assume that they were spraying directly onto the fire. It’s an obvious conclusion: you see smoke, maybe see flames, and so you aim the water hoses there and hope to put it out.
That, however, was not the case.
At some point in the history of the building, someone put a roof over the atrium – or courtyard of the building – under the main roof. As is obvious in the photos, there are two connected walls, still standing.
As the fire department continued to spray water on what they thought was source of the fire, it was going nowhere. All that water rained down, past the windows, past the fire, and simply hit the ground.
There was way no way fire crews could know about the second roof erected over the courtyard.
Another issue were staircases that were added, long after the original construction, and a door that was placed halfway up one staircase. This type of unorthodox construction can lead to dangerous stability issues, especially should the unthinkable happen and firemen need to enter the site to attempt to contain a fire.
A couple of months before the blaze, the city inspected the property. What they found was the perfect recipe to feed a hungry fire: combustible items like paint, thinner, wooden pallets, scrap wood, paper, and more. All of this was improperly stored on the second floor of the property.
Then there were the extension cords, surge protectors, and outlet adapters.
One of the shop owners told me that almost everything was powered by extension cords, throughout the building.
She said that in one spot, toward the back of her shop, there was the electrical outlet with power strips plugged into each socket. This allowed for up to sixteen separate items to be plugged in to only two wall outlets.
When she first moved in, she was not happy. She would flip a few of the light switches, and nothing would happen. No lights or fans would turn on.
Later, she found out that the switches were controlling the lights in another store, not hers.
She also mentioned that the extension cords were usually very hot to the touch, obviously overtaxed by the strain of so much voltage traveling through them at a given time.
It’s not hard to visualize this, after seeing the evidence presented by Inspector Torres that had been removed from the building. It was a light fixture that was believed to be one that was documented in the prior inspection of the building.
It was not affixed to the ceiling of the building, but instead was resting on two 2x4s, powered by an extension cord. Into that light fixture, someone had attached two electrical outlets. The wiring that was used was of three different types: Romex wire, wire in conduit, and wires attached to wires. On its own, that type of set up could be a major contributor to the fire.
“There are some serious violations downtown,” says Inspector Torres.
“In 2012 we start the code sweeps,” said Torres. “700 properties downtown. They brought in every certified inspector with the fire department. We did that for two months.”
During the inspections, they began to classify buildings based on the level and nature of violations found.
“Of that 700, 150 were just the worst of the worst,” said Torres. “…the Fire Department released all that information.”
One notable change was that storage limits were imposed, and new permits had to be issued. This was to force business and property owners to face the issue head-on and start cutting back on what was kept in storage, and how much was held.
In 2014 the Fire Department began to revisit those vacant properties; those that were considered the “worst of the worst,” were required to obtain a vacant building permit. Torres says that of those 150 properties only 15 registered.
“Of those 15,” says Torres, “only 12 were compliant.”
“So, 2014 I begin to visit all 150 properties,” he said. “It took me till the end of 2015. There’s a list I have that I put in the hazardous category. The top 5 are American Furniture, the Tire Pros, the Mansion, the Caples building, the old Kress building, and the old Club 101.”
In 2016 Inspector Torres was given the authority to start enforcing.
“2015 to 2016 I was put with an architect, a building inspector, and then someone from economic development,” said Torres. “We go out and meet with all these property owners to see what improvement they need if there is anything the city can do for them. All this stuff for these nightmare buildings.”
There are about 25 such buildings. Buildings that we all have driven past and seen and wondered why they are falling apart. We complain that the city needs to do more, the county needs to step in and fix the issues.
We complain to our friends, on Facebook maybe, should put forth the idea of a rally, but that’s it. We stop there.
“In 2016 it is revised, the list, to say a building is not vacant if a tenant moves out, and it’s ready for another tenant to move in,” says Nick Torres of the El Paso Fire Department. “That’s just an unoccupied building.”
Most of the buildings in Downtown are unoccupied but not technically considered vacant, based on this list. They are business ready. You could sign your lease today and open your doors tomorrow. That’s how ready they are.
Then, there are buildings like the American Furniture building that are a mess. It is trashed inside and out. For that building to be tenant-ready, there would need to be a lot of work done.
“There’s trash,” says Torres. “Leaky faucets, questionable electrical systems, roof leaks.”
In 2016 the Fire Department began to deal with these issues, by founding the Vacant Building Registration or VBR. The VBR was comprised of a city architect, the inspection supervisor, two city attorneys, three building inspectors, and investigators from the El Paso Fire Department, as well as the historical person from the City of El Paso.
“They start working the list I created in 2015,” said Torres, speaking of the list of buildings that are the considered the worst. “They say ‘let’s start at the top.’”
The building at the top of the list? The American Furniture building.
“In 2010, a judge ordered that it be compliant with city code and the process took until 2014,” said Torres. “When I found it in 2014, I put it on my list, and we put it on the Vacant Building Registration.”
In the end, the process of trying to push the owner, Billy Abraham, to bring the building up to code landed in Federal Court and the issuance of a $2.1 million fine. This is the largest fine ever issued because the court went back to the day the order was originally issued and retro-fined Mr Abraham $1,000 per day.
“In 2017 we took 25 properties to the Building Standards Commission,” said Torres. “Some were condemned, some boarded and secured, and others demolished. We recently took the Fallas’ building, the old Popular Building. It’s a Trost Building.”
The hearings for the BSC are held on the last Wednesday of every month and are open to the public.
“We got them [Fallas] to fix the façade, to maintain the Trost appearance on the front, to fix the windows,” said Torres. “And, thanks to the city historical people, they were told that they had to match the era.”
It is because of the Hardin fire that the commission was created. Sadly, it had to be done in response to the loss of historical property, and though they are not playing catch-up, but they are working on it.
“We work every day on this list,” said Torres. “If I’m not investigating a fire, I am on this list. The only problem is, it’s complaint driven.”
At the end of 2016, they opened 311, a number anyone can all to file a complaint of vacant or run-down buildings. The first month they had 25 calls. By the second month, that number doubled.
“It went on for three or four months, and now we have hundreds of buildings,” says Torres. Each one is being taken to the BSC.
Since then, have the calls to 311 continued? Are people still calling in to report dangerous and unsafe or vacant buildings, or even homes like the Trost home that was lost to fire two weeks back.
Just like with the home on Gold Hill Terrace, questions surrounding the livability of the home and if it was simply vacant or abandoned, a call to 311 just might have saved it from this fire.
When anyone sees a building or home that they feel is unsafe or vacant, simply call 311 and the complaint will be routed to city inspectors, the VBR crew and an inspection will be conducted.
“What happens when people call 311,” says Nick Torres, “is if they say there are people in it or living in it the report goes to the Police Department, to the Building inspectors, and the Fire Department.”
The police will go to check and see if anyone is in there and to assess the condition of the people – are they trespassing, or are they living there. If they are living there, the Police will determine if the Fire Department needs to be sent to the site. It will then be determined if there an imminent danger to health and safety.
“The building guys and us,” said Torres, speaking of the Fire Department inspectors, “go out as soon as we get the email from 311.”
They will not only visit the home or building you’ve called about, but they will also talk to neighbors to find out if anyone is there, and find out what, if anything is going on.
“It’s gotten so bad,” said Torres, “that I started carrying 2×4’s in my truck, to temporally board up and secure the property.”
According to Inspector Torres, unless people take a moment to care, take the time to call 311, in the event of another fire like this one, there is nothing that can be done aside from finger pointing.
“If the public is concerned about vacant properties, or historical vacant properties, they need to do their part, they need to report these buildings,” said Torres, “Not to City Reps, because City Reps are not the ones who go out and investigate them.”
“If they want to make a difference, they need to call 311 and report it. When they do, it’s going to notify several entities: the police department, the building department, and the Fire Marshall’s Investigating Unit.”
Inspector Torres did say that most of the fires occur in vacant buildings. These buildings have been empty for some time. Perhaps teenagers are getting in there and starting the fire, which he’s seen before. However, it’s also possible that a homeless person has gotten in and started a fire to stay warm. He’s seen that as well.
Ultimately, if it’s empty, it may not be secured; and that increases the chance that the property may be lost to a fire.
“Its complaint driven,” said Torres. “If we don’t know about it, there is nothing we can do about it. So, the more calls for a property we have, and once we visit the site, we can start making notifications to the property owner.”
Though it’s a time consuming process, it’s worth it to save the buildings, and potentially, lives.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Torres said.
Between the city building inspectors, the fire department inspectors, and the Vacant Building Taskforce, there are people out there who can get the job done.
We’ve lost far too many buildings to fires that could have been prevented. Not just Trost buildings, but other beautiful buildings, as well. As citizens of El Paso, every one of us are partially to blame if we fail to report these empty buildings.
Along with calling 311, we can also demand that the city expand the number of investigators with both the city building department and the El Paso Fire Department.
“If the public is concerned, if the historical people are concerned about these Trost buildings, they need to do their part. It’s not going to take rallies, it’s not going to take presentation at City Council, it’s going to take the average citizen calling and saying ‘hey, kids are hanging around this vacant building, can you check it out?’” said Torres.
In the end, the Hardin building was not lost to someone deliberately setting the fire, it appears to be a combination of very simple things and decisions, and the blame can be spread around quite generously.
The photos of the light, with the outlets attached to it, should be enough to wake all of us up. If not, there will be more flames in the future, more blame and more loss.
As you are out and about, take a moment to look and pay attention. If you see something out of the ordinary, like kids who frequent a vacant building, a growing amount of graffiti on a property, or a building that is starting to look dilapidated, take those few moments to call 311.
By calling and reporting, you could very well prevent the loss of life, property and history.
Authors: Amy R. Babcock and Steven Cottingham