DURANGO (AP) – Cleanup began Sunday at the El Rancho Tavern, a local landmark damaged in a Saturday fire that left two dozen residents of the upper-floor Central Hotel homeless. Durango Fire and Rescue Authority spokesman Dave Abercrombie said Sunday the bar sustained mainly water damage.
The Central Hotel, which occupied the second, third and fourth stories, was in a grimmer condition. While the second story received a good deal of water damage and some smoke damage, the third floor, where the fire began, was badly damaged throughout. The fourth floor is likely a total loss.
"Some of the roof is gone," Abercrombie explained. "The fourth floor is all but destroyed. The floor is very iffy and has holes in it. What's left is very unstable."
Abercrombie said firefighters had used infrared devices to determine there were no remaining dangerous hotspots.
Little Jay Beaver, 63, known to most in town as Little Beav, a resident of the fourth floor, was alerted to the danger by his fire alarm.
"Everybody else was screaming and yelling," Beaver said.
Beaver said he started for the stairway but found the heat too intense and turned around. He then went for the fire escape but, he said, the emergency door was locked. The hotel's live-in maintenance man also was on the fourth floor and was able to unlock the door with a passkey.
"If he hadn't had the key, we wouldn't have gotten out," Beaver said. "We would have burned up."
The colorful denizen of Durango's downtown, who said he has lived in the Central Hotel for 15 years, escaped with his shoes but lost his trademark collection of natty clothes.
Kathy Rowlison, 45, another fourth-floor resident, was at work when the fire broke out.
"I tried to go into the building," Rowlison said. "I told the fireman 'I've got to go inside and save something,' but he said, 'Ma'am, you don't realize, this building's on fire.'"
Flames were soon shooting out her window.
"There's not a whole lot of things worse you can experience in life, after burying a child," said Rowlison, who previously lost a daughter.
Abercrombie said the fourth floor was clear of residents by the time firefighters arrived.
Building owner Chip Lile was at the El Rancho on Sunday but would not comment for this story.
Beaver, who advertises himself as a private detective, said the hallway was full of the smell of kerosene when he was making his escape. Abercrombie said the fire was considered suspicious because of how quickly the flames grew and spread but said no determination about the cause of the fire had yet been made. The Durango fire authority and police are cooperating in an investigation. Abercrombie urges anyone with pictures or film of the fire to contact the Durango Police Department or e-mail PDINV@ci.durango.co.us.
A Familiar Condition
Many of those left homeless by Saturday's fire were forced to face a familiar enemy.
Beaver and Rowlison, like many of the third- and fourth-floor residents, have been homeless before.
"Our main concern is housing right now," said Rowlison, who has worked in grief counseling and has lived in Durango for six years.
"This is the third time I've had to completely start over this year," she said. "I don't know what lesson I'm supposed to be learning right now, but maybe it's that you've just got to be thankful you're alive."
The Central Hotel offered some of the few truly affordable rooms in town – Beaver and Rowlison were paying $310 per month for their fourth-floor walk-ups. In Durango's exploding real-estate market, similar options are simply not available.
"They're having to find a solution," said Julie Oskard, spokeswoman for the Southwest Colorado American Red Cross. "We're going to do everything we can."
The Red Cross's contribution has so far included food, clothing, medication, mental-health support and help with phone calls. Most importantly, it has housed 13 Central Hotel residents at the Super 8 Motel at 20 Stewart Street since the fire. That temporary housing ends Tuesday morning.
Oskard said the 13 included one couple and 11 single individuals. She said they had all been referred to social services. Housing options include the Durango Community Shelter run by the Volunteers of America, Oskard said.
Beaver and Rowlison will have to make their own way – Beaver said he has no relatives. and Rowlison said she has lost everyone but one terminally ill relative.
"I try to be real positive," said Rowlison. "Getting on the pity pot is not going to help anything. It's time to start all