Casino employees wonder what's next

March 21, 2009 9:21:18 PM PDT
One day after a devastating fire, employees of the Empress Casino in Joliet were wondering about their futures. 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

The fire, which broke out Friday, destroyed the land-based pavilion and restaurant areas. The water-based casino was not damaged, but it is closed indefinitely.

Fire investigators are trying to figure out exactly what sparked the fire that burned seven hours and why it was so difficult to control.

Fire and casino officials say it is too early to tell when Empress Casino will be able to reopen.

But casino officials also say they went through something similar after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and while it was definitely a much worse situation there, they were able to get back up and running fairly quickly. So, they say it may be a matter of setting up a temporary entrance and temporary food options, and all that is being figured out now. The logistics are expected to be worked out within the next couple of days.

One casino employee speaking with ABC7 just celebrated 15 years as a cocktail waitress. She is one of several employees displaced by fire and is worried about what happens next.

"We work for tips, and that's our livelihood. Watching your second home go up in flames yesterday was just devastating," said Sheila Labino.

Labino was one of a steady stream of employees who tried to get into the casino Saturday looking for information. All were turned away with nothing but a phone number to call.

"I don't even have my paycheck yet. I came here yesterday to pick it up and [there] was this fire and we were evacuated. I came today, I still don't have my check. They won't let me in," Kim Vorazio said.

That's because even though the fire is out, access to the casino is now restricted to those crews working on the fallout. The fire chief told ABC7 Saturday that firefighters spent the night before dealing with hot spots in the pavilion.

"That part of the structure, the front half is gone. What will have to be done is that will be [demolished], hauled away, and the Empress will have to work on some sort of a new plan, architectural plan on rebuilding," Joliet Fire Dept. Chief Joe Formhals.

The good news is that the gaming area did not sustain any damage. Frank Quigley, the casino's general manager, sought Saturday to reassure employees.

"Our employees are family, and we treat them as such. And we will have the property open and their jobs secured that way. I will have an answer on that by Monday at lunch time on exactly what will happen with the employees in terms of their short-term comp benefits," Quigley said.

A hotline has been set up for employees to call for information: 815-793-4474.

Empress Casino is looking to reassure its customers also, saying anyone who has gift certificates or coupons can use them as the sister property in Aurora.

Also, the city of Joliet has a vested interest in getting the casino open as soon as possible. Every day that Empress remains closed, the city loses tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.