- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Nouman Saleem, one of the owner/managers of the Capitol Inn & Suites, says his family will do all it can to rebuild or replicate the 110-room motel that went up in flames on Nov. 11.

“We are strong and we are going to come back stronger and better and be back on top,” he said, emotional as he talked to the Pierre Capital Journal (https://bit.ly/1yQ1wnK ) about the damage the fire had done.

The owner is his father, Tanveer Saleem, who is in his late 60s and “very sick and in and out of hospitals” in Pennsylvania and New York. He remains there, unable to return to Pierre to help with the recovery of the motel, said Saleem.

Saleem, his brother Imran Saleem and their father, along with their mother and other family members, have owned and operated motels in Florida and St. Joseph, Missouri, before moving to Pierre in 2006 and buying what had been a Motel 6.

The motel housed not only regular daily or weekly customers, especially during the legislative sessions at the Capitol about four blocks away, but also housed long-term, low-income tenants, some of whom lived there for a year or more.

Last Monday, Nouman met with about 11 former tenants looking to retrieve any belongings still salvageable from their rooms. Only one man was allowed to go back into his room because it was safe enough. He drove off in an SUV pulling a small trailer filled with bulging black plastic bags containing his personal property from the room.

The following day, Saleem planned to meet with other tenants and help them find what might be left of their things, he said.

Police and fire officials have released little information about the fire and are reporting that its cause has been ruled accidental and a result of “electrical failure.”

Police Chief Dave Panzer said the fire site has been turned over to Farm Bureau insurance. The company is now in charge of its security and will do its own investigation.

Saleem said he was told the fire began inside interior walls in room 267, the motel’s presidential suite, which was unoccupied.

He was working in the office with one employee, while a second employee, Jason King, was “shoveling snow or something,” on the afternoon of Nov. 11 when a tenant called the motel office.

“She said she could smell smoke and could hear a smoke detector,” he said. “That was about 3:42 in the afternoon.” He first assumed it was a usual suspect: low batteries in the smoke detector causing a false alarm, Saleem said.

But soon he and King, the maintenance supervisor, spotted smoke coming out of an exhaust fan in the bathroom of the unoccupied presidential suite on the second floor on the northwest side of the motel.

A group of hunters from Indiana were the last customers in that suite, staying about a week until several days before the fire, Saleem said.

The smoke didn’t seem like a big deal at first.

“We tried to put it out with fire extinguishers,” he said.

Saleem said he told his office manager to call 911 about 3:52 p.m.

He and King walked around to each door to make sure all the approximately 32 tenants were alerted and told to leave, Saleem said.

“I pulled an old guy out of that room at the last,” Saleem said, pointing up to a second-floor apartment with busted out windows. “He was OK.”

Both he and King knocked on one door of a long-time resident, “everyone called her Jo,” but it wasn’t until later during the firefighting that the elderly woman’s body was found in her apartment.

She had been dead for about two days, her death unrelated to the fire.

Josephine Westman grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and was an enrolled member of the Sioux tribe there, according to a funeral director handling arrangements.

Saleem said he last saw her and talked with her Nov. 7.

Westman was in her late 60s and had recently lost her job, he said

Her car remains parked near pine trees in the motel parking lot, still covered with ice from firefighters’ water hoses.

The 911 call is recorded as coming into the city/county dispatch center at 3:56 p.m. and firefighters were on the scene by about 4 p.m., according to dispatch center officials.

Saleem said he has photos showing that no flames were visible outside the building until well after firefighters arrived. “All you could see was smoke coming out the all the vents,” he said.

Firefighters later told him the fire likely had been simmering within the walls long before any smoke was detected, Saleem said. More than 60 firefighters from five fire departments battled the fire and the frigid winds for hours, not able to save the roof, using 3.5 million gallons of water.

It’s the biggest fire in Pierre in decades of memory, city officials say.

The Saleem family bought the motel in December 2006 from two South Dakota property investors/brokers, Gary Mueller and Cliff Visscher, for $950,000, according to county records.

In 2011, Tanveer Saleem bought it, as the official agent, of Pierre Hotels Group LLC, from his son Imran Saleem, for a reported sale price of $2.95 million, according to property records at the county office.

Roger Fuller, tax equalization director for Hughes County for more than 30 years, said he assessed the motel’s value for tax purposes in 2013 at $825,956, including $341,907 for the two-story building, which had a total of about 35,000 square feet, and $484,049 for the 3.2 acres of land. The latest property tax bill on the motel of $17,438 was, as previous ones, paid in full, Fuller said.

His assessments aim at being within 10 percent of the actual market value of such commercial properties but would not include personal property such as the furniture, including televisions and other equipment, Fuller said.

The motel was built in 1979 as a Motel 6, Fuller said.

Nouman Saleem said his family spent a lot of money renovating the motel and managing it much better than the previous owners, perhaps more than doubling its business and revenue, which accounts for the higher sale price of the motel by the time his father became principal owner in 2011.

On Monday, Nov. 17, a security guard who said he was hired by the insurance company was on duty guarding the site.

Saleem said Farm Bureau officials told him they would erect a fence in the next few days around the site to protect the public, as well as the contents of the rooms during the insurance investigation.

He said he and his family are committed to rebuilding once they reach a settlement with the insurance company.

He and his wife are expecting their first child next month, Saleem said, so he’s “traumatized,” by the stress of the fire wiping out not only his tenants’ homes and possessions, but what he’s worked for eight years to build.

It all began with a little smoke in one room, he said.

“It’s unbelievable that something that little can take away everything you’ve worked for years.”

Looking at the charred shell of the building, Saleem said he’s hopeful the first floor might be salvaged as a base for a new building.

But whether it’s repairing this one or building a new motel or buying another, he said, “we will do whatever it takes.”


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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