Fire that destroyed historic El Paso building still under investigation

One city official says the city should return a $100,000 gift from the building's owner


By Aaron Bracamontes
The El Paso Times

EL PASO, N.M. — About 50 people have been interviewed as part of the on-going investigation of the fire that destroyed a 130-year-old building in Downtown El Paso last month.

On April 19, more than 140 firefighters responded to the fire at 100 E. San Antonio.

After hours of battling the blaze, firefighters extinguished the flames, but the three-story building, known as the First National Bank building, was a total loss.

More than a month later, the rubble has been cleared. There is an obvious void at the intersection of San Antonio Avenue and El Paso Street, where the building stood.

The investigation by both the El Paso Fire Department and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is not finished.

Fire Department spokesman George De La Torre said investigators are done with the physical part of the investigation, but they are still reviewing the evidence and interviews.

The cause of the fire is still undetermined. Investigators have not ruled anything out, including that it was arson or that it started accidentally.

As a result of the blaze, a six-person team from the Fire Department has been inspecting Downtown buildings to check on whether they are in compliance with the city's building code.

De La Torre said the Downtown inspections have taken longer to complete than originally planned. About 400 of an estimated 600 buildings have already been examined.

"Everything will be presented to City Council at the end of the inspections," De La Torre said. "It will have all our findings and recommendations."

The First National Bank building was a historic landmark. Its architecture was distinctive of the 1880s, and construction was entirely of wood.

The second floor contained gunslinger John Wesley Hardin's law offices.

The property now belongs to River Oaks Properties, which is owned by Gerald Rubin.

River Oaks Properties referred the El Paso Times to the company's lawyer, Yolanda Giner, at Gordon Davis Johnson and Shane Law Offices. Giner did not return messages left by the Times.

The night of the fire, Rubin was at the Downtown scene but walked away from reporters when they approached.

In the beginning of May, Rubin made a $100,000 donation to the El Paso Fire Department, thanking the firefighters for risking their lives, according to a statement released by the city that day.

The money was put into the capital fund for the department to be used for firefighting equipment.

The city spent $65,000 to fight the fire, damaging 22 pieces of equipment and using 940,000 gallons of water, according to a Times article.

While the donation was accepted, city Rep. Susie Byrd publicly voiced concerns over the gift and asked that the city return the money.

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