No one knows yet how it started, Friday’s 5-alarm fire that took out the Southwest Inn and caused the death of 4 Houston firefighters working to put it out — and the hospitalization of 14 others. The investigation, says HFD spokesperson Ruy Lozano, will take time. Meanwhile, much of the attention has shifted to the Sharpstown motel’s rather colorful history.
Located on the Southwest Fwy. between Hillcroft and Bellaire, the motel was once known as the Roadrunner. This is how Harris County prosecutor Murray Newman, who in 2002 and 2003 tried 2 men for a murder that had happened there, describes the place:
The Roadrunner was a courtyard-type hotel that was virtually deserted during daylight hours. At night, the place swarmed with people who lived there permanently and they all had their own economic system of trading sex, drugs, money and violence as a means of existence. The Red Carpet [next door] was no better. It had interior rooms and hallways where the residents would leave the doors open as they smoked crack and had sex. The fact that a prosecutor and investigator were walking down the halls in broad daylight didn’t seem to bother them much.
And this is what Newman later tells the Houston Chronicle:
The thing that kept sticking out at us is that it looked OK from the street. . . . There was a pool and a little playground. A family could stop there and not know any better. They would see the sign for $35 a night and think that was a good place to stop. Then night would come and they would hear the gunshots and scuffling, and they’d see people hanging on every balcony doing all sorts of things. It was wild.
In 2006, it seems that the Roadrunner was sold to an entity controlled by Roger Y. Chen, who hasn’t yet made any public statements about the fire. Soon, the motel was renamed and given some cosmetic updates — a conference room was renovated and WiFi introduced.
But it seems some of the same sordid activity that Newman describes continued to happen: Click2Houston’s Robert Arnold is reporting that, in 2013, police “have been called to the motel 25 times for possible peeping toms, reports of burglaries, thefts, assaults, prostitution, drug use and suspicious people.” And Arnold also reports a string of fire-related violations going back to 2009, the motel and restaurant “cited for problems for expired permits, obstruction of exits, problems with fire suppression systems, non working smoke detectors in several rooms and the motel’s overall fire alarm system. . . . However, the most recent inspection found in HFD’s database was on May 8 of this year and showed ‘no action required.'”
On Monday, what remained after the fire was torn down by Cherry Demolition. Tomorrow, a memorial service will be held at Reliant Stadium.
- Hell on Earth [Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center]
- Local 2 Investigates: Southwest Inn’s troubled past [Click2Houston]
- Why The Investigation Of Fire That Killed Four Houston Firefighters Could Take Months [KUHF]
- Hotel’s sordid past includes police officer’s murder [Houston Chronicle ($)]
- Memorial for Fallen Firefighters Scheduled as Investigation Continues [Hair Balls]
Photo: KUHF via Flickr