City officials announced Monday that they have condemned a motel that was partially destroyed after a gas explosion in Beaumont Centre.
Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city, said the Fairfield Inn & Suites Marriott was condemned because of extensive damage, and "no one can access the building without fire escort or until the building is made structurally stable."
A portion of the Fairfield Inn exploded and collapsed at 6:23 p.m. Sunday after a car hit a gas meter. More than half of the building appeared to be intact. However, the portion that exploded resembled a bombed-out wartime target.
"Most of the belongings of the guests have been removed, and a chain-link fence around the building is being erected," Straub said. Representatives of the motel's owners, including a structural engineer, headed to Lexington on Monday to assess the damage.
Shortly after the city condemned the building, its owners issued a statement, saying they had started making plans to rebuild the Fairfield Inn. The motel is owned and operated by TMI Hospitality of Fargo, N.D. No time frame was given for when construction would start.
TMI also applauded the efforts of employees and emergency crews who helped guests escape without any serious injuries. The hotel, with 60 rooms, was 70 percent occupied.
Debbie Tyler, assistant general manager of the Fairfield Inn, and firefighters hustled to get the guests out.
Battalion Chief Joe Best said a "trouble alarm" inside the building was triggered when the collision occurred. Tyler went to investigate and pulled the fire alarm, he said.
Lexington fire Lt. Derek Roberts was one of the first on the scene. He said firefighters at Station 20 on Arrowhead Drive, which is practically down the street, received the call at 6:15 p.m. Three minutes later, the firefighters who arrived smelled gas.
"It was a very distinct smell," he said. "OK, this is very serious ... . I started to run from the scene and telling everybody 'get back.'"
Tyler went through the building knocking on doors, evacuating the motel just before the explosion. Other guests had gone to dinner at restaurants around town, and they returned to find the devastation.
"She deserves a lot of credit for getting everybody out," Best said Monday of Tyler.
At least two firefighters suffered minor injuries, but no serious injuries were reported, officials said.
Bruce Bremer of Eau Claire, Wis., said flying glass struck his leg and arm just moments after he and his wife got out of the motel. He said he was standing in the parking lot when he saw one of firefighters suddenly run from the building "in fear." Bremer said he started running himself and was then struck.
"If it had not been for the fire alarms, there would have been dead people," he said Monday morning.
Bremer said his car, a recently purchased Mercury Grand Marquis, was mostly covered in rubble from the building.
He and his wife were on their way to a vacation in Williamsburg, Va., and they planned to continue the trip, he said.
First, though, they'll have to find out whether their car is driveable.
Several guests complimented Tyler and Lexington police and firefighters, saying they prevented what could have been a much more serious disaster. Guests also said firefighters brought luggage and personal items out of the motel.
"Debbie Tyler was wonderful; she saved a lot of people," Bob Hartman said. "The Lexington police and fire were tremendous. They answered all our questions; I can't say enough about what they did."
Fire officials said Monday that it remained unclear what ignited the leaking natural gas.
Lexington police and fire were working together to complete an investigation, said police department spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts.
Roberts said the department's accident reconstruction unit had gotten involved because the explosion was caused by a vehicle.
Police have said an older man was driving a car in the motel parking lot when he hit an above-ground gas meter that leads to the Fairfield Inn. The man — who was a guest at the adjacent Hampton Inn — thought he hit the brake, but he hit the gas, police said.
Roberts did not release the man's identity Monday. She said officials have to wrap up the investigation before police can decide whether the crash was criminal or accidental.
Fire department Maj. Lee Hayden said damage mainly was limited to the one wing nearest the gas leak. Seven rooms were occupied at the time, he said.
"It was a substantial blast," Hayden said. "You're looking at 24 rooms that have been affected. The rest of the building was not affected, other than the gas being cut off."
Hayden said, however, that it wasn't immediately known whether the building had sustained structural damage.
"At this point, we don't want to risk any other lives by going back in," he said.
Hayden said the explosion pointed up the importance of paying attention to fire alarms when they go off, and not assuming they are only a drill or a false alarm.
"As you can see here, if people had ignored that alarm, this could have been a very different situation," he said. "That's one of the things we try to teach motels and apartment complexes. When you hear an alarm, get out."