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Richmond hotel fire kills U.S. woman

VANCOUVER -- As a fire burned just outside their hotel room doors and thick, hot smoke melted plastic signs in the hallway, guests at the Richmond Inn tied bed sheets to their balcony railings and climbed to safety late Thursday night.

The blaze claimed the life of a 49-year-old woman from Maryland. A second person remains in hospital in critical condition.

While about 350 people got out after the fire began at about 11 p.m. in a two-storey courtyard building, a few men on the ground floor climbed atop chairs they had hauled from their rooms to help other guests down.

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"I'm eternally grateful for those gentlemen," said Maureen Wilson, 63, whose second-storey room was just doors away from the flames. "I'd have had to jump if they hadn't been down there."

She and three relatives had just finished an Alaskan cruise and had planned to return home to Groves, Tex., the day before.

Their flight was cancelled because it would have taken them into the path of hurricane Rita.

But Thursday night was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, said Ms. Wilson's brother-in-law, Bruce Latiolais, 66.

"I'd just got out of the shower, and I heard my wife banging, saying there's a fire. I said, 'Oh my God,' and put on my jeans.

"We got some towels [to breathe through], and got ready to go down the hallway, but the door was too hot," he said.

"I cracked the door, and the heat hit me in the face. It was bad."

They heard glass breaking from the pressure of the hot smoke, and retreated to the balcony, where Ms. Wilson was already hollering for help, he said.

That's when they started tying the sheets.

The woman who died and the victim in critical condition had tried to go through the hallway, but were knocked unconscious by the smoke, carbon monoxide and noxious chemicals from burning plastic, firefighters said later.

Another 12 people were taken to hospital, mostly for smoke inhalation, but released.

Campbell River resident Bryan Bowie said flames licked the walls outside his ground-floor room. The 57-year-old and his friend, Gunnar Bagged, 55, took a chair and they and others climbed up to steady the Wilsons' and the Latiolais' descent.

"We didn't know who they were, but we helped," Mr. Bowie said yesterday morning.

Hotel staff, firefighters and police joined the effort, removing people from the balconies using extension ladders.

Mr. Bowie said he thought he wouldn't see the Texans again.

But as hotel guests milled about the lobby yesterday morning recovering bags left in the rooms during the escape, Mr. Wilson's wife, Janis -- still in her nightgown, the only thing she could pull from her room the night before -- saw Mr. Bowie and gave him a big hug.

The Richmond Fire Department used all of its equipment in the fire, Chief Jim Hancock said.

Firefighters made a stand where the two-storey courtyard buildings connected with an eight-storey hotel tower, he said, because if the fire had spread, flames would have leaped up elevator shafts as if they were chimneys.

The fire was extinguished within half an hour, and it was amazing that more people weren't hurt, he said.

The damage could have been far worse; the 33-year-old two-storey sections where the fire occurred were built before sprinklers were required by law.

"Our building codes need to be beefed up [to require sprinklers for older buildings]," Chief Hancock said.

Staff members at the 389-room hotel had their hands full trying to find accommodation for occupants of the 280 rooms that were damaged, said Jim Nesbitt, vice-president of the hotel.

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