Heavy fire damage at Empress Casino in Joliet

Two people hospitalized
March 20, 2009 8:44:43 PM PDT
A fire at the Empress Casino was finally contained Friday evening, after burning for seven hours.For pictures of the Joliet fire from Chopper 7 HD click here
VIDEO: Initial Report - Fire at Joliet casino
VIDEO: Empress Casino fire news conference

On Friday night, fire fighters remained on the scene to watch for flare-ups.

Fire and thick black smoke rose from a building at the Empress Casino in Joliet most of the day Friday. It shut down the gambling floor and forced the evacuation of hundreds of gamblers and workers.

The fire broke out at approximately 10 a.m., and appeared to be out at around 5 p.m. Most of the firefighters in Joliet and some neighboring areas had been deployed to the scene when the blaze broke out, according to officials.

Two people were hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening.

The building that caught fire is located in the southwest corner of the Empress pavilion at 2300 Empress Drive, just off U.S. 6.

Casino management and Joliet fire officials said the fire began in the kitchen area of a space under renovation. Entryways were being remodeled and new restaurants were being built as part of a $50-million project.

"We don't know the amount of damage that's been done. The reality is, though, we will do everything in our power to get this thing opened up, get those employees back to work as quickly as we possibly can," said Empress Casino General Manager Frank Quigley.

About 500 customers and staff people were able to get out quickly as part of an orderly evacuation.

Firefighters arriving on the scene thought they had the situation under control initially, but the fire kept moving horizontally in the vaulted ceilings, and there just wasn't enough water to stay ahead of the fire. Throughout the afternoon, flames consumed the complex.

"Right now, we are doing a defensive attack. We had firefighters on the inside?with the roof coming in, we couldn't risk keeping people inside," said Chief Joe Formhals of the Joliet Fire Department earlier Friday afternoon.

Experts said with a fire of this magnitude, gaming equipment is sure to suffer and delay any reopening of the complex.

"The smoke actually contains sulfur and that settles and, over time, causes corrosion. So, it's going to be important for the equipment to be evaluated to make sure there's not any long-lasting effects," said consulting engineer Bob Kerbins.

Penn National Gaming owns the casino, and spokesman Eric Schippers says it was undergoing a $50 million renovation.

"They were doing construction around the clock trying to get better product for the folks that go to the facility," said city official Jim Haller.

Authorities say the fire might have been started by a welder's spark that hit some grease in the kitchen area of the facility.

The fire will have a significant impact on the economy in Joliet, as the casino is one of the city's major employers, with roughly 850 workers.

Currently, unemployment in Joliet stands at 11.4 percent, and budget shortfalls have Joliet city officials considering layoffs.

Also, the Empress Casino has business deals worth millions of dollars, $50-million renovation project that was under way at the time of the fire.

Casino fire major blow to local economy

The fire at the Empress Casino is a big blow to the local economy.

The casino provides more than 900 jobs and it was a big money maker too.

Last year, $1.6 million people visited the casino, helping the facility bring in nearly $184 million.

Garrett Allen settles in to a nice dinner out with his family. It's his night off.

But Allen says he'd rather be working at the Empress Casino. The bartender is worried his job there is in jeopardy after the devastating fire.

"Just wondering how I was going to be able to support my family. I've worked there for 10 years and the way things are with jobs nowadays, it's a scary for everybody, even scarier now," said Garrett Allen, Empress Casino employee.

The Empress Casino employs more than 900 employees - and casino officials are not sure when they may re-open.

In addition to those jobs, the fire is also a financial blow for the city of Joliet. The casino's tax revenue is 6 percent of the city's yearly budget.

"As far as the city of Joliet is concerned they get about 1.5 million a month from Empress. That money is used for many things including employee salaries, infrastructure, neighborhood improvement programs and the city is in a financial crisis like many other communities are across the country," said Kevin Hegarty, Joliet city spokesperson.

Eighty-five percent of Joliet's workers are in a union, like the city's police force. Right now, city officials are working with six different unions, trying to cut costs. Ultimately, they're worried the fire will halt tax revenue, dent their budget and force layoffs.

"The city is looking at some situations and scenarios where there could possibly be some layoffs the we're trying to work with our labor groups in a spirit of cooperation to try to minimize those impacts, but this certainly doesn't help the situation at all," said Kenneth Mihelich, Joliet director of management and budget.

Empress is not the only casino. Harrah's is another, located in downtown Joliet.

Together, the casinos bring in millions for the city. In 2007, it was about $36 million dollars. In 2008, that dropped to $26 million. City officials blame the smoking ban and recession. And although, gamblers dropped by Harrah's on Friday night. Management here isn't convinced there will be a huge jump in attendance because of the fire.

"We're just one of many forms of entertainment out there. When one goes away, we may or may not be another one," said Darren VanDover, Senior VP & General Manager, Harrah's.

As for Garrett Allen, he's ready to do what it takes to get the Empress up and running, even if it includes volunteering to help.

"Hopefully they'll be up and running in a couple of weeks and get back to work and try to get back to normal," said Allen.

Every year, the casino brings in $52 million for the state of Illinois.