If there’s anything certain when a downtown building explodes, it’s that nothing is really certain and won’t be for some time. On Monday afternoon, the W.T. Waggoner Building, which houses the Sandman Signature hotel in downtown Fort Worth, was rocked by an explosion that injured 21 people, leaving one in critical condition from burns and several others in serious condition.
A gas leak is the suspected cause for the destruction, but authorities have not confirmed that yet. They have, however, ruled out any sort of criminal activity behind the explosion.
As of Wednesday afternoon, three victims were still hospitalized after fire department members finished searching through the rubble. In a news conference on Tuesday, Fort Worth Fire Chief Jim Davis said he was sure that no further victims would be discovered. As remarkable as it is that no fatalities resulted from the blast, there’s a long road to travel before the city, many residents and the hotel and its employees will know what the future holds for the Sandman Signature.
The area immediately surrounding the hotel on Houston Street is still considered a “hot zone” by authorities. A spokesman for the Fort Worth Police Department isn’t ready to say when the hot zone might cool down.
“The hot zone is an evolving situation,” the spokesman told the Observer over the phone. “I do know that it will take several days for anything to change there.”
The spokesman said that fire crews were quite thorough during the search-and-rescue part of the aftermath on Monday and Tuesday, taking debris and rubble “wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow” away from the site and searching each pile individually. Businesses near the hot zone have been providing snacks and beverages to the first responders working the scene.
“Our main focus here at the Fort Worth PD right now is to provide scene security,” the spokesman said. “This way, the fire department and other departments and agencies can conduct cleanup and their investigations. We’re making sure nobody goes into the hot zone and that the people trying to get to the businesses in the surrounding area can do that.”
“The hot zone is an evolving situation. I do know that it will take several days for anything to change there.” – Fort Worth Police Department
Northland Properties, a Canadian group owned by Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi, runs the Sandman Signature hotels in Fort Worth and Plano. When asked about the next steps for the company in terms of getting the hotel back up and running, a rep for the company emailed the Observer the following statement.
Our hearts remain with everyone who was affected, and we continue to stay in close contact and provide support to team members who have been injured. Our primary focus is supporting those who have been impacted, as well as the safety and well-being of staff, guests, and the local community.
We are also working with the fire department to contact our guests and reunite them with their belongings as quickly as possible. We want to thank the first responders, local officials, the city and council, and the state for their support during this difficult time.
We are cooperating with officials as they investigate the cause of the explosion and the extent of the damage.
Even with the rubble cleared and employees accounted for, there’s no telling when the hotel might open again, but hotel ownership will still be quite busy.
Justin Bragiel, general counsel and operations manager for the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, says that the determination of the structure’s stability at this point could be the difference between the Sandman Signature reopening in weeks, months or even more than a year. But that decision could take some time, given the damage the historic building sustained.
On Wednesday, NBC 5 reported that “there was significant damage to the W.T. Waggoner Building, specifically to the first floor, basement, and sub-basement.” The building’s safety is just the first of many items that need to be checked off in the coming days.
“For the employees, I think the hotel will do whatever it takes to hold onto those employees.” – Justin Bragiel, Texas Hotel & Lodging Association
“There are also other concerns for the hotel, such as thinking about the contractual obligations to incoming guests and groups,” Bragiel said. “The hotel will be OK since in all likelihood they have business interruption insurance, and ideally that’ll help from a financial perspective. Of course, the hotel has to manage its reputation now and maintain relationships with the groups that had booked business with them.”
Bragiel, who has been with the THLA since 2008, can’t think of an instance like this for another Texas hotel, at least not in recent memory. He notes that hotels being flooded or damaged in other ways isn’t necessarily rare, and the COVD-19 pandemic changed everything when it came to hotel operations in 2020. He added that standard contracts for meetings and large groups at hotels include clauses to allow for unforeseen events.
A force majeure clause, part of a standard contract for groups booking meetings and conferences at hotels, frees both parties from obligation if an extraordinary or catastrophic event directly prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their end of the deal. Before 2020, such a clause might’ve seemed like boilerplate afterthought, but these days, it could be the most important part of a hotel group-booking contract outside of the agreed-upon room rates.
Right now, Northland Properties is still deciding the next steps it will take in just about every area, including with its Fort Worth employees, who currently don’t know when their next shift will be.
“For the employees, I think the hotel will do whatever it takes to hold onto those employees, especially in this labor environment,” Bragiel said. “If that means paying them while the hotel isn’t open, you may see that, if there’s the ability to move them over to the Plano Sandman property, they may do that too. Those are usually how things play out for folks in this type of situation.”