Cigarette May Have Sparked Blaze At Hotel

Gulfport fire investigators say it may have been a cigarette that caused an early morning fire at an old downtown hotel.

The fire started just after 1 o'clock Friday morning in room 15 of the Will's Hotel on Highway 49.

Fire Chief Pat Sullivan says they think the man who lived in that room was smoking and possibly ignited the bed. The man was pulled from the building and went to the hospital where he was in fair condition.

The hotel was gutted, only the frame is still standing.

Rooms at the Wills Hotel were rented weekly, daily and monthly. The 40 people who lived there were temporarily housed in the Headstart Center on Rippy Road, which the Red Cross opened.

Now with very little left of the hotel, we found some of the people salvaging what they could of their lives.

Kenneth Bonfiglio lived in the Wills Hotel for four years. After Friday's fire, what's left of his life is in just a few boxes.

"My pictures, some of my clothes, my medals from Vietnam, all my military and social security paperwork."

It may not be much, but Bonfiglio is grateful to save what he could.

"This is my life. This is everything. My TV, my VCR stuff like that is all water damaged. I left some of my clothes. I can replace the stuff. I'm just glad nobody got hurt."

Michael Richardson was sleeping in a corner room downstairs when he heard people running in the hall screaming "Fire."

"I just jumped up and happened to throw on a fire department t-shirt by coincidence. And I looked and I could see smoke coming down the stairwell and I went out the front."

Richardson says he couldn't believe how fast the fire spread. He says within ten minutes the entire second floor and the back of the building were gone.

Most of his things made it through the fire and he has a place to go.

"This is my brother and he's gonna let me stay with him until I find another place to stay. But a lot of these guys, at $75 a week, are hanging on by their fingernails just to swing that. I got a good job, I make decent money, so it wasn't that big a deal to me, but my heart goes out to some of these other guys who ain't gonna have a place at all to stay."

That worries manager Jerry Edwards, as well. He says he'll be okay, but he's not so sure about some of the others.

"I'm more worried about some of these guys here than myself, cause some of them work at day labor. Some of them borrow money from me to pay their rent sometimes, and they paid me back, so they're gonna have a rough time."

The Wills Hotel was built in the 1920s. There was a fire there in 1988 where the roof was damaged.

Before Friday morning's fire, the manager says renovation work had just begun with new paint and new carpet.