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Back in the day, Oct. 14, 1978: Four-alarm blaze destroys vacant Leonard Hotel in downtown Omaha

Back in the day, Oct. 14, 1978: Four-alarm blaze destroys vacant Leonard Hotel in downtown Omaha


A four-alarm fire destroyed the vacant Leonard Hotel in downtown Omaha on Oct. 14, 1978. 

Here's a look back at several hotel fires in Nebraska's history.

A four-alarm fire raged out of control as it destroyed a vacant downtown hotel 43 years ago today, injuring three firefighters and sending smoke billowing over downtown Omaha.

Flames were shooting through the center of the Leonard Hotel, 2547-2551 Farnam St., as late as two and a half hours after firefighters were first called to the scene shortly after 8 p.m.

Fire officials said two adjacent businesses, the Sterling Manufacturing Co. on the east and the Novak Volkswagen body shop on the west, sustained considerable smoke damage. 

Assistant Fire Chief Bob Warsocki said “a substantial fire wall” on both sides of the hotel kept the blaze from spreading. The buildings were connected.

Flames were not visible for about an hour. Firefighters on a snorkel unit were engulfed in smoke above the two-story brick building as flames shot through the top.

As the flames shot higher, firefighters used explosives, called jet axes, to blow holes in the brick walls so firefighters could shoot in streams of water.

At the height of the blaze, 22 units of equipment and 12 companies of firefighters were used.

The hotel owner, Thomas C. Polley, told Fire Department officials that the hotel was valued at $85,000.

In November 1981, Polley was convicted on six counts of mail fraud in connection with arson at the hotel and the resulting fire damage.

A witness had testified that Polley had told him he had hired an out-of-town arsonist to burn the hotel.

U.S. District Judge Albert Schatz sentenced Polley, 67, to two years' probation and fined him $6,000.

Schatz said he considered Polley’s age and his poor health in deciding to place him on probation. He said Polley “did have the compassion and foresight to make sure there would not be anyone in the hotel at the time of the fire.”

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