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Homeless and angry

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services

Fort Smith (Dec 12/05) - About 30 people in Fort Smith are still homeless, and still angry, after the fire marshal suddenly shut down the Pinecrest Hotel.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Ruth Nadary, a resident of Pinecrest Hotel, says its sudden closure by the fire marshal was unfair. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The hotel was closed on Dec. 2, and long-term residents were forced to leave because of what the fire marshal deemed to be immediate fire hazards.

"That's my home," said Pinecrest resident Leonard Shott. "Now I've got no home."

Shott, who has lived at the Pinecrest for 14 years, has been staying at friends and relatives since he was "put in the street." He now helps with night-time security at the building, but cannot stay in his room.

On Friday, he joined other ousted Pinecrest residents demonstrating in front of Fort Smith Town Hall, part of a series of protests last week.

Ruth Nadary, another Pinecrest resident, said she was shocked by the sudden closure.

"That's not right to treat people like this," she said. "It's almost Christmas time."

About 18-20 people spent their first homeless night at Roaring Rapids Hall and then several nights on cots and in sleeping bags at Uncle Gabe's Friendship Centre.

On Friday, they were moved to another local hotel, a bread and breakfast, and a women's shelter. Others are staying with friends and relatives.

Fire marshal Bernie Van Tighem is standing by his decision to shut down the hotel.

"I would not have done this unless their lives were at risk," he said. "We had to act."

During an inspection on Nov. 30, an assistant fire marshall found a non-functioning fire alarm, uncertainty whether the sprinkler system worked, missing structural separations to restrict the spread of fire and smoke, missing stairs and blocked exits, and improper storage of combustible material.

The deficiencies must be corrected before the residents will be allowed to return.

The fire department was called to the hotel by a passer-by in late November because of a large amount of smoke coming from a chimney, and made a report to the fire marshal about the unsafe conditions. The report was followed up with the inspection several days later.

Fort Smith fire chief Darren Linaker supports the fire marshal's action, noting it was a difficult decision. "But it had to be made."

Linaker believes the whole situation has been spun out of context, explaining the issue seems to have become more about the inconvenience to the hotel and residents. Instead, he says the real issue is the life-threatening fire hazards at the Pinecrest.

Linaker also rejects a suggestion by Bruce Gordier, the hotel operator, that he has been harassed by the fire marshal and fire department. "I don't even know Bruce Gordier."

Gordier said he was told by the fire marshal that he will face charges under the Fire Prevention Act for not properly securing the building and allowing the residents to return. The possibility of charges was confirmed by Van Tighem.

Gordier and the residents are critical of Mayor Peter Martselos and town council for not doing enough to help.

Martselos said the town did what it could to help find accommodations.

He is also puzzled by criticism that the town may have played a role in getting the hotel shut down in the first place. "The mayor, council and Town of Fort Smith have nothing to with it."

Eight full and part-time workers have lost their jobs as bartenders, waitresses and cleaners because of the closure. Along with the bar, two businesses operating there have also been forced to close.

Gordier said the hotel is losing about $55,000 in gross monthly income.

It is unclear when the work to repair the deficiencies in the Pinecrest might be done.

However, Gordier said he intends to eventually re-open the building.