On Friday, March 20, 2009, fire swept through multiple horizontal void spaces at the Empress Casino in Joliet, IL, quickly outpacing fire department resources during the initial stages of the fire. The fire burned within horizontal void spaces, running the roof and truss system for an undetermined...
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On Friday, March 20, 2009, fire swept through multiple horizontal void spaces at the Empress Casino in Joliet, IL, quickly outpacing fire department resources during the initial stages of the fire. The fire burned within horizontal void spaces, running the roof and truss system for an undetermined amount of time prior to the arrival of fire crews.
By the time the fire was brought under control 10 hours later, some 150 Joliet firefighters, along with tanker companies from 35 other departments, poured more than 4 million gallons of water into the structure. The fire eventually consumed most of the land-based building portions of the casino that housed the casino's restaurants, ballrooms, lounges, some storage and kitchens, but firefighters saved the 50,000-square-foot casino, as well the docks and part of the corporate administrative building. No lives were lost, but ambulances transported one casino patron to the hospital for minor injuries and one firefighter for a back injury.
The Empress Casino opened in 1992 and, under then-existing gaming laws, operated two riverboats that provided gambling cruises to patrons of about an hour at a time. Eventually, state laws relaxed to let the riverboats remain permanently docked, essentially creating permanent, floating buildings. The Empress had been remodeled several times and at the time of the fire was undergoing another renovation at an estimated cost of $50 million.
These successive renovations included multiple ceilings (at least three), one stacked on top of the other with a three-by-five-foot void space between each roof, supported by gusset-plate wooden trusses and some light industrial steel supports. Throughout all remodeling periods, the building remained a light industrial building, with a combination of interior steel supporting beams and columns and wooden trusses, joists and walls.
The exterior of the casino had been covered with a prefabricated textured styrene-type product to give an exterior look of desert-swept pyramids. The casino floor floated on a barge with a wooden and steel building constructed on top of it. This barge housed all gambling operations, and was permanently attached to the land-based portion of the casino known as the "pavilion."
The casino floor measured more than 50,000 square feet with more than 30 table games and 1,100 slot machines, while the pavilion measured an additional 50,000-plus square feet. The pavilion housed three upscale restaurants, large kitchens, administrative offices, personnel lounges, storage rooms, several large ballrooms and a host of other spaces.
Early estimates indicate that the land-based businesses accounted for less than 5% of the casino's revenue, while the casino floor accounted for the remaining 95%.
Though the official cause of fire (and the property damage value) is still under investigation, it is believed the fire was sparked by a welder working in the southwest corner of the pavilion above the kitchen area. At some point, sparks from the torch or welder are believed to have ignited the kitchen ventilation system. The ventilation system is believed to have been coated with atomized grease deposited in the kitchen exhaust over years of use. The grease along the duct work caught fire, resulting in heat buildup and direct flame impingement on material in the roof spaces. The fire ignited material within the roof trusses and joists, resulting in self-sustaining flame spread. It is unknown how long the fire burned in the roof's void spaces prior to the arrival of fire personnel.
Initial Still Alarm
Firefighter/Paramedic James Rudnicki, a seven-year veteran on the Joliet Fire Department (JFD), started his shift at the Empress Casino on the morning of March 20 at 5:45 as part of the department's on-site 24-hour paramedic coverage of casino patrons. The casino pays the City of Joliet to provide off-duty firefighters for this service. At 9:54 A.M., Rudnicki heard radio traffic come across the casino's security band mentioning smoke in the southwest portion of the pavilion (the land-based portion of the casino). The area included the casino's kitchens.