The dispossessed

The flames that destroyed the Mizpah Hotel took 12 people’s lives with them. This is one man’s terrifying tale of survival.

Photo By David Robert

Walter Smith’s trip through Hell left him with burns on his hands and arms.

Smith was one of the 71 people who lost everything when the Mizpah Hotel was torched on Oct. 31. And he was one of the lucky ones.Even though it was Halloween, there was nothing portentous about the evening. Smith had been across the street visiting friends. He returned to the Mizpah, a historic but recently remodeled three-story hotel on Lake and East First streets in downtown Reno at about 9:30 p.m.

On his way up to his white and orange, second-floor room, he passed another resident, Valerie Moore, and stepped aside to let her pass. Moore, 47, was on parole for the 1987 murder of an unemployed waitress in a dispute over $5. If police are correct, Moore now has 12 more innocent deaths on her conscience—deaths caused by her actions that horrific Halloween night when reports allege she put a mattress against a door in the hotel and set it ablaze.

Smith, 57, said it was odd to see Moore in the hotel for two reasons. First, she’d been 86’d from the hotel two weeks before. Second, he believed police had been called to the hotel earlier that day to talk to Moore, who’d been arguing with her boyfriend. He was surprised that, as a parolee in trouble, she hadn’t been taken to 911 Parr Blvd., the local lockup.

Smith believes Moore had just lit the mattress against the door of Room 1 when he encountered her in the hall. The retired veteran also believes he has come too far—from New Orleans to Camp Pendleton and Vietnam in 1968 to Hayward and Oakland and retirement in 1995 and then Reno in 2003—to die in a fire. He claims he wouldn’t even have been in Reno if the government hadn’t screwed up his military pension, having designated him deceased. Three years later, and he says he’s still trying to straighten out his retirement payment. “I was just staying here in Reno, trying to get my checks started back up again. Till they make me ‘alive’ again.” Irony noted.

When he got to his room that night, he put his jacket on the bed, preparing for an evening of watching television.

Walter Smith barely escaped the Halloween Mizpah fire with his life. Here, he sits on the bed in his room at the Flamingo Motel.

Photo By David Robert

That’s when the fire alarms went off. At first, he wasn’t too concerned. You know how older fire systems are, sometimes they just go off for no reason. But then he smelled what he thought was burning electrical wiring. He phoned the front desk.

“I said, ‘Man, the alarm going off up here.’ He said, ‘I know.’ I guess the place was burning up then. All he told me was, ‘I know.’ Six people died where I live at. I could have knocked on their door, but all he said was, ‘I know.’ And I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going up front.'”

His room was at the end of a long hallway. The steps downstairs were about halfway down the hall. Almost the instant he opened the door, the lights died. Pitch black, he calls it. He closed his eyes and began feeling his way down the corridor.

There’s a concept in firefighting called a flashpoint. Technically, it’s the lowest temperature at which chemical vapors ignite. Firefighters will tell you it’s an explosion, kind of like the plume of burning lamp oil blown by fire eaters. As something like a mattress burns, it releases chemicals, which rise to the ceiling in an enclosed area like a hallway. When there are many mattresses burning in a hallway, the gases accumulate, and the fire’s temperature rises quickly. When the gases combust, it’s Hell on Earth.

Smith claims the second floor of the hotel was lined with mattresses. He’s not the first to say so. On Nov. 4, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported, “[Mizpah] Resident Brian Meyer said the hotel had changed out mattresses in the rooms a month ago and had left old mattresses in the hallways.” The fact that sprinklers are not required in older buildings less than 55 feet tall seems almost irrelevant next to this assertion.

Smith says he was nearing the stairs when the chemicals in the air reached flashpoint and exploded.

“The fire shot straight down that hall—500 miles per hour.” Smith throws a pack of USA Gold cigarettes across his dingy room in the Flamingo Motel on Center Street to show the speed of the flames. “It didn’t take one minute to go from the front of that motel to the back of that motel. Forty seconds—the fire was back here burning. Burning … Hell. I got about halfway down. That’s when the flame like a blast came and got me.

Demolition of the Mizpah was underway soon after the fire.

Photo By David Robert

“The shit was going around my head like this.” He swirls hands above his head. “Fire then smoke. I made it back to my room. They had a window there. I swallowed so much fucking fire, I couldn’t open that window. I just punched that window out, and I just leaned out the window to get enough air. I couldn’t go out all the way; I had to get enough air. When I got enough air, I just backed up and jumped out.”

Smith pushes his gray derby back on his head. He draws a diagram with his finger on the worn, floral-patterned bedspread. He shows where the fire started, he points to where the stairs were, where his room and all his possessions were. It was Room 60. He taps where his neighbors used to live.

“All these people: 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 70, they all dead. They all died.”

Smith says he landed on an alley garbage can when he jumped out the window. He said there were people trying to escape the firestorm through a gate. He couldn’t help them. His powerlessness plainly bothers him, although he knows he couldn’t have helped.

“That’s all I can tell you. It started on fire. But when I got out, when I made it out, the flames were already 50-60 feet high. I ran to the front, and I saw Max Birch and that woman [Valerie Moore] arguing. He tell the police she the one who started the fire. In the motel, they had old mattresses in the hall. You only had a space like this"—he holds his hands about two and a half feet apart—"to go through between the mattresses. She just set the mattresses on fire. They were standing on the wall in the hall. It was just like a domino affect, shit.”

While Smith offers an eyewitness account, it’ll take a jury to decide Moore’s role in the Mizpah fire, if any. However, Max Birch said over the phone that he believes he was the target of an arson attack.

ATF fire investigators took Smith back to his room to see if anything was salvageable. The mattresses were just springs lining the hall, he says. He probably could have skipped the trip to his room, although maybe it’s better to know there was nothing that could have been saved.

“I lost everything I had. Everything. Clothes, jewelry, everything. My refrigerator and telephone and TV is melted down like you took a plastic cup and put a fire to it. All that melted. The curtains on my window were burnt up. I lost everything. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Everything’s burnt. Nothing, nothing left.”

The deadliest fire in Reno’s history destroyed more than a hotel built in 1922. It dispossessed a lot of people who didn’t have a lot to begin with. Those who feel inclined to help can call the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission Community Assistance Center, 315 Record St., 323-7999; or ReStart, an organization that helps homeless people, 490 Mill St., 324-2622.

Those looking for information about friends or relatives affected by the fire can call the Reno Police Department at 334-2115 or the American Red Cross at 856-1000.