A destructive fire at a residential hotel that injured 17 people was likely intentionally set, fire and police officials said at a press conference Thursday.
The way it burned "is indicative of a fire that had some help," Watsonville Fire Chief Mark Bisbee said.
However, no arrests have been made in connection with the April 30 fire at the Stag Hotel.
Investigators have a person of interest in the case but refused to disclose any information about that person, have not said how the fire was set and did not say what the possible motive was, other than the hotel itself was the target.
It will be at least a month before investigators learn if they have enough evidence to link someone to the arson, Watsonville police Lt. David McCartney said.
The lobby of the Stag Hotel caught in the evening, a blaze that quickly exploded into a massive wall of flames, heat and smoke. Residents—mostly men, some with medical conditions—who were trapped inside jumped from second story windows to escape the inferno. Three suffered serious injuries and two of them remain hospitalized, officials said.
For all of Patch's coverage of the arson at the Stag Hotel, click HERE.
The Watsonville Police Department is now in charge of the investigation, according to Watsonville Fire Chief Mark Bisbee.
"We do believe this is an isolated incident," McCartney said, trying to reassure nearby businesses and residents that there is not a serial arsonist in Watsonville.
If an arrest is made, the charges could range from arson causing great bodily injury to murder, if the most seriously injured resident does not recover. He is currently in a medically induced coma, intubated and suffering from severe burns, McCartney said.
One other badly burned man also remains hospitalized. He is in stable condition, Bisbe said.
McCartney said not being able to speak with the comatose man—who ran from the fire under his own power, but then collapsed and was quickly flown to an out-of-county trauma center—has hampered the investigation.
The probe is also waiting on evidence sent to the state Department of Justice crime lab in Redding. Results of that forensic testing could take a month, McCartney said.
The fire ignited in the lobby, a 20-by-30-foot common area in a front corner of the 75-year-old building that was filled with couches, chairs and bookshelves. It burned hot and fast, Bisbee said.
"Had the fire occurred late at night, it could have been much worse," Bisbee said.
The historic building had no sprinklers. That's something fire department staff and other city officials are hoping to rectify when the residential hotel reopens.
"We don't want to just repaint a fire trap," Bisbee said.
City officials also looking for grant funding to add sprinklers to other similar buildings in town; Bisbee declined to say which ones so as not to create fear among residents.
About four dozen Stag Hotel residents, mostly low-income men, were displaced by the fire. Their Red Cross-provided housing vouchers for hotel rooms have run out. Some are staying at the Pajaro Rescue Mission, but Bisbee wasn't sure how the rest of them were managing.
Stag Hotel manager Russ Rickman said some of the residents are doing better with the situation and all have found some form of housing.
One bright spot, Rickman said, was that the rear eight units at the Stag—apartments in a separate building behind the one that burned—should reopen in the near future and tenants can move back in.
Still, people are still struggling.
"It's one of them kinda things, it's just, Jesus, it's terrible," Rickman said. "I want it to end."