Part of Casino “Written Off”

Foul play not suspected

A fire apparently sparked by a construction worker caused heavy damage to sections of the Empress Casino on Friday and firefighters had to truck in water to contain the blaze.

The fire, which began about 10 a.m., appeared to have started as a construction worker welded a kitchen hood in an area of the casino undergoing a $50 million renovation, according to acting Joliet Police Chief Benjamin Billups. Foul play was not suspected, he said.

Images from Sky5 over the scene showed thick torrents of black smoke coming from the building, and flames shooting through the roof. At least 20 tanker trucks are shuttling water to the scene from as far as two miles away, fire officials said.

Fire officials have "written off" the part of the building that was under construction and focused on keeping the flames from spreading to the established casino and office complex, said Police Lt. Stephen Breen.

The smoldering, Egyptian-themed casino was closed and did not immediately have a reopening date, Penn National Gaming, the Wyomissing, Penn.-based parent company of Empress, said in a statement.

"As soon as practicable we will deploy a team to assess the scope of the damage following which we will quickly develop a plan that will allow us to bring the property back into operation so that we can bring our over 800 employees back to work as soon as possible," said Peter M. Carlino, CEO of Penn National.

Throughout the fight, smoke alternated between light gray, which shows fire crews are getting to the hot spots, to thick black, an indication the flames are again gaining strength.

Patrons and employees were evacuated and two people were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Billups said. About 100 employees and construction workers were in the area when the fire started, but it was unclear how many patrons were in the building at the time.

Empress is one of 16 casinos around the country owned by the company. It has 50,000 square feet of gaming and 973 employees.

Casino patron Bob Bennet of Joliet said the evacuation was announced over a public-address system.

"They told us we had to evacuate because there was a small fire," Bennet told The (Joliet) Herald-News. "Everyone got up and left. It went well, there was no one panicking, no pushing or shoving."

The blaze continued to burn for hours but remained within the construction area. Joliet Fire Chief Joe Formhals said 20 tankers shuttled water to the blaze from as far as two miles away. The department called for assistance from nearby crews about 1 p.m.

Penn National has established an assistance hot line for the affected employees and plans to provide updates on its Web site.

The $50 million casino renovation project included a new buffet restaurant and other amenities, said Penn spokesman Eric Schippers. The first phase of the project was to open this summer and the second later in the fall, he said.

"Our focus now is on the safety of our customers and employees," Schippers said.

Empress Casino facts, from

Year opened: 1992
Employees: 1,040
Visitors in 2005: 1.9 million
2005 total Illinois tax revenue generated: $87.2 million
2005 local share of tax revenue: $13.8 million

The local share of tax money from Empress Casino has funded:

  • A decrease in property tax rates
  • Abolishment of $25 vehicle sticker fee
  • Joliet Splash Station water park
  • A minor league baseball stadium in Joliet

Empress Casino's charitable donations to the community include:

  • Monetary donation and host sponsor for the annual Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center for Will/Grundy counties.  Event held in the Empress Grand Ballroom each year.
  • Long standing member of the Will County Center for Economic Development.
  • Major sponsor for several Senior Services Center of Will County events.
  • Casino Employee Helping Hand Food Drive Casino employees from across Illinois participated in this annual food drive. As a result of the casino employees' efforts over 56,000 non-perishable food items were collected for local food pantries

    "Because of the Empress Casino, our city has continued to grow and prosper. Each year there are 1,000 additional homes built in Joliet."
    -Joliet Mayor Arthur Schultz

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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