By Paul Hemmer
HURLEYVILLE March 6, 2001 A devastating apartment fire kept firefighters at bay for over four hours and left two families and one college student homeless on Friday in Hurleyville.
Karl Spoerri, a student at Sullivan County Community College, and the Budd and McGuire families lost everything as the fast-moving fire swept through their residences with catastrophic results.
According to Hurleyville Fire Chief Stuart Wizwer, his department was summoned to the scene after State Police reported smoke coming from the roof of the building on 293 Main Street near Little Pond Road around 10:30 a.m. Hurleyvilles first due engine reported smoke showing and called for a second alarm and an additional engine and manpower to the scene from Loch Sheldrake Fire Department.
Hurleyvilles second due engine laid two lines to a hydrant less than 200 feet up Main Street to supply water to the initial attack operations.
According to Wizwer, the fire was advancing rapidly upon his arrival.
"It was really cooking when I got here," said Wizwer. "Fire was blowing out of the back corner of the building when I went around back."
Calling for mutual aid from several other departments, Wizwer said that initial operations were hindered by a lack of manpower in the first few minutes.
"We started with an exterior attack until more manpower arrived at the scene," Wizwer said. "It just isnt safe until you have enough people to do it properly."
Hurleyville firefighters stretched two, inch and three-quarter lines to the building as Monticello with an engine and manpower, Loch Sheldrake with an engine, rescue and manpower and Rock Hills FAST Team were either arriving or en route. When Loch Sheldrakes engine arrived on the scene, it was directed to drop a 5" supply line from the scene to a pond on the corner of Main Street and Little Pond Road to help supply Monticellos engine and Fallsburg Fire Departments ladder, which was also en route to the scene.
According to Wizwer, initial reports could not account for the whereabouts of several children who may have been home at the time of the fire due to school being closed for a snow day. As the fire raced through the structure, Monticello Fire Departments newly acquired Thermal Imaging Camera was placed into service as a team of firefighters conducted a search of all three apartments that were known to be occupied.
An extensive search of the now fiercely burning structure by Monticello firefighters and their camera found no evidence of human occupants remaining inside; however, firefighters were able to locate one of the familys dogs and bring it to safety.
Chief Wizwer requested that Fallsburg PD and State Police, who were also on the scene, try to locate and account for all the people who lived in the apartments, which they successfully did eventually.
With flames at times shooting more than 30 feet from the roof of the burning structure, the approximately 85 firefighters that were on the scene fought valiantly to quell the raging inferno as it advanced seemingly undaunted through the entire structure.
The only reported injury sustained by firefighters during the course of the blaze came just after one of the interior fire attack operations. Monticello firefighter Chris Bastone was burned on his neck while exiting the structure after being warned to get out of the building due to an imminent collapse of its roof. His partner, Monticello firefighter Carl Houman, followed Bastone out of the building and saw him suddenly run for the road.
"We had just finished with a primary search of the building when we went back in to attack the fire with a two-inch attack line," said Houman. "We were knocking the fire back and pulling down ceilings when we heard air horns blowing, warning us to get out of the building. As we exited the structure, a piece of burning siding came off the outside of the building and hit Chris in the neck with the burning end."
Personnel from MobileMedic EMS, who were standing by at the scene, quickly attended to Bastones injury and transported him to Community General Hospital in Harris, were he was treated for possible second to third degree burns to his neck. He was treated and later released.
Arriving on the scene during the course of the firefighting operations, members of both the Budd and McGuire families were visibly devastated by what they saw.
Barbara Ackerman comforted one of her two daughters who lived at the apartment building who was overcome at the loss of her beloved dog. As they watched the raging fire consume everything they owned, she told her daughter, "You have your life and your familys lives."
The other occupant of the apartment building, Karl Spoerri, who was in his apartment at the time the fire broke out, escaped injury as well but could not be reached for comment.
According to Chief Wizwer, the Red Cross was contacted to respond to the scene to assist the fire victims, who lost everything. As he observed the continuing fireground activity, Chief Wizwer summed up the chain of events since the start of the fire.
"The construction of the building was certainly a factor that contributed to the fires rapid spread," he said. "An old building, remodeled several times with a new roof, dead air space and hidden pockets of fire were all problems."
Sullivan County Deputy Fire Coordinator Joe Mellan, who was on the scene during the majority of the fireground operations, summed up how most everyone who was fighting the fire felt about the stubborn blaze.
"This is the toughest fire Ive seen in a long time," Mellan remarked during a discussion with Chief Wizwer.
Several teams of firefighters advancing hose lines inside some of the still accessible rooms in the front of the building, along with Fallsburgs ladder truck directing streams of water onto the now collapsed roof area, finally brought the fire under control sometime after 5 p.m. According to Wizwer, while firefighters were battling on the scene, Neversink Fire Department was on stand-by duty at the Loch Sheldrake fire station and an engine from Monticello stood by in Hurleyville, Woodbourne covered Fallsburg and Wurtsboro stood by in Monticello.
Members of the Sullivan County Fire Investigation Team were called to assist in determining the cause of the blaze, which is still under investigation at this time.
A fund to help the fire victims has been established through the Hurleyville Fire Department. Anyone who wishes to make a charitable contribution can make their donations out to "Hurleyville Fire Department/Fire Victims of 293 Main Street."
The Hurleyville Fire Department will also be hosting a benefit spaghetti and meatball dinner for the families on Sunday, March 11, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Adults are $8 apiece, while children (under 12) are $5, and those younger than five are free. The proceeds will go to assist the fire victims.