$5 million damage at former Hayden Island hotel

By Dave Kern, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 
Five-alarm fire

Video

See the bottom of this story for a video of fire crews mopping up the scene of Sunday morning's huge fire.

photoA fire boat helps put out the fire Sunday afternoon on the Columbia River.

(/The Columbian)

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photoFirefighters battle a five-alarm fire at the former Red Lion Hotel on Jantzen Beach early Sunday morning.

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UPDATE: At 9 a.m. Monday, crews still are on the scene putting out spot fires. Fire investigators will arrive about 11:00 a.m.. to began the tedious task of milling through the rubble to determine the cause of the fire. The blaze caused an estimated $5 million in damage, said an official with the Portland Fire & Rescue.

Crews will continue mopping up Monday and Tuesday at the vacant Thunderbird on the River hotel on Hayden Island, destroyed early Sunday morning by fire that sent spectacular flames into the night sky.

It is considered the biggest local fire in more than a decade and its cause probably will not be known for days.

“We haven’t had a five-alarm structure fire since 1999,” said Ron Rouse, fire inspector for Portland Fire & Rescue.

The blaze broke out at 2:53 a.m. As night fell Sunday, crews were still pouring water on hot spots and the area was still smoky. No injuries were reported.

The 352-room hotel at 1401 N. Hayden Island Drive has been vacant since 2005. It is just west of the Interstate 5 Bridge and directly across from the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay in Vancouver. It was once owned by Vancouver’s Tod McClaskey and Ridgefield’s Ed Pietz, who sold their 54-hotel empire in 1984. The site once was mentioned for a Walmart store, but plans fell through.

“The bulk of the fire is out,” Rouse said about 12:30 Sunday afternoon. He said it had been under control at 7 a.m., but added firefighters were hitting “hot spots.”

“We’ll have crews on the scene for the next two days. … Our investigators will not be able to get through the rubble for 48 hours,” Rouse said. He added that Portland Fire is in charge of the investigation.

Asked about the cause, Rouse said, “We have no idea.”

Asked about possible suspects, he said, “Now, there is a lot of transients in the area,” but said he could not place blame.

Southbound traffic was crawling much of Sunday as motorists stared at the rubble. Spectators found vantage points on the bridge’s west walkway, many taking photos of firefighters high atop ladders. Smoke continued to waft over the bridge.

Rouse said that early Sunday morning, the smoke was so thick motorists could barely see to cross. The southbound lanes were closed from 3:15 to 6 a.m., the Washington State Department of Transportation reported.

An estimated 165 firefighters helped on the effort, including two engine companies from Vancouver Fire Department.

“We have 39 apparatus that have responded, including three fireboats,” Rouse said. He is a Washougal resident.

Rouse noted that firefighters fought the fire from outside, for safety’s sake. The department much earlier had marked two building entrances with large U’s, indicating the building was not safe to enter. The hotel has a central building and five wings, and “four of the wings collapsed,” Rouse said.

“One of the roofs (the eastern wing) was totally opened up,” shooting flames into the sky and choking the air with smoke, Rouse said. He said the hotel was fully involved when firefighters reached the scene.

“I’ve heard from several firefighters that that was the biggest fire they have been on in their careers” Rouse said.

Rouse said 241,000 gallons of water had been used by one ladder truck as of noon Sunday. He said more than 1 million gallons were poured on the structure Sunday.

“We had to call the Water Bureau to make sure we weren’t depleting the city of all its water,” he said.

Rouse said those firefighters atop ladder trucks were equipped with oxygen masks and tanks and were relieved about every 20 minutes.

Earlier concern

Minutes of a February meeting of the Hayden Island neighborhood association indicate worries about the hotel:

“Audience asked about the abandoned Red Lion/Thunderbird and West Hayden Island properties regarding vagrants. Both properties have private security firms that patrol the areas. Port rep Brooke Berglund explained that the transients are aware of trespassing laws and generally are living on the DSL State Lands, thereby avoiding confrontation with police. (Portland police) Officer (Anthony) Zoeller also explained that being on Port property is not an arrestable offence.”

Why empty?

In April, Columbian reporter Scott Hewitt asked about the status of the empty hotel.

He noted there were two big hotels on opposite sides of Interstate 5 at the north shore of Jantzen Beach. They used to compete, even though they were owned by the same company — until both were sold and the downstream inn, the Thunderbird on the River, closed in March 2005.

Why did the Thunderbird close? Rod Russell, director of operations for both hotels, told Hewitt, “It’s all wrapped up in the Columbia River Crossing bridge project. That new freeway bridge, if it ever happens, it’ll be somewhere right around that building.”

Russell said the building had not been condemned and was for sale. But given the circumstances, the chances of a buyer coming through are “slim to none,” he said then. Wal-Mart at one time expressed some interest in the site, according to Columbian archives. But that, too, went nowhere.

Russell said the Thunderbird had 24-hour security, a fully functioning fire detection and suppression system, and regular inspections, and that it was also visited by law enforcement and emergency responders from both sides of the river.

“The Portland SWAT team, Vancouver police and SWAT teams, both Portland and Vancouver fire, they all use that location for training. They’re very familiar with it,” Russell said.

Thunderbird legacy

In 1959, Tod McClaskey, who died in February 2003, and Ed Pietz, who died in June of 2011, bought the Thunderbird Motel near the Memorial Coliseum in Portland, and made it into the first Red Lion Hotel. They continued to add properties until they sold the 54-hotel chain to Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. in 1984.

In a 1999 interview with The Columbian, Pietz said he and McClaskey regretted selling the chain for $640 million.

“We’re both sorry we sold, I can tell you that,” ­Pietz said then. “They’re good properties, and we don’t like what they’ve done to them.”

The New York investors didn’t maintain Red Lion standards for service and quality, McClaskey said.

“They were strictly financial people, and they could see that maybe they could save a little bit of money or maybe quite a lot, I don’t know, by cutting out the processes that we were doing.”

Of his job, McClaskey said in 1999, “I enjoyed it. I didn’t feel like I was ever going to work. … I thought it was a game. I loved what I was doing. I should have never sold out.”

In 2003, Pietz said of McClaskey, who died that year at 91, “I have lost a part of me. We were just a couple farm boys that started out with nothing. Today, you have to be rich to even start.”

Of his business partnership with McClaskey, Pietz said: “Most everything we did worked. We made quick judgments and didn’t sit around the office and do a lot of talking. We were like brothers — didn’t fight very often.”