By Ted Waddell
FERNDALE July 13, 2001 On her day off from work, Gwendolyn Williams sat tearfully on the lawn watching firefighters attack a fire raging around her apartment.
Dressed in a red and white checkered robe, the nurses aide at Community General Hospital of Sullivan County narrowly escaped the flames that totally destroyed an adjacent garage and seriously damaged her home on Wednesday. On the way out the door, Williams managed to grab her pocketbook, leaving all her other worldly possessions behind.
The fire broke out that afternoon in a garage at an apartment complex located off Old Route 17 in Ferndale.
I was laying in bed watching the soaps on my day off, she said. I was drawing water in the tub when I heard this loud noise like a firecracker and thought, What is that? I looked out the window and saw a big flame coming out of the garage. I called 911, put on my robe and ran out to the road.
As more than 60 local volunteer firefighters rushed to the scene, Ralph Tinsley, Williams companion of 20 years, heard of the fire, and thinking his girlfriend was asleep in their apartment, sped home from his job as assistant chef at the Raleigh Hotel.
Her sister-in-law called me at work and said our place was on fire, so I dropped everything and ran out of the kitchen, he said. It was totally pandemonium. . . . I was praying she was okay.
While Williams watched the fire eat its way through the garage and spread to her apartment, Edith and Eduardo Cruz, two other tenants, comforted each other alongside the road.
Billie Joe Isaacs was headed home when she saw 80-foot-high flames rearing into the afternoon sky from a burning tank of liquid propane in back of the engulfed garage.
Id just seen the flames and all these people coming out of the house, said the passerby. I ran in to help them they didnt speak English and told them to get out before anything bad happened.
It was like, Wow!, I hope nobodys in there, she added.
According to the Sullivan County 911 Center, the fire was reported at 1 p.m. It was declared under control about two hours later and is under investigation.
Rube Smith, 2nd assistant chief of the Liberty Fire Department, was the ranking officer at the scene.
We were hampered by the burning propane, winds and water problems, he said. One building was fully involved and ruined, [and] the second was pretty much saved after we knocked it [the fire] down, but the contents are pretty much ruined.
It was a difficult fire, added Smith.
The buildings are owned by Fred Lewis, who said he bought the old Ackerman Motel in 1969.
The Liberty Fire Department was assisted at the scene by several local volunteer fire companies: Loch Sheldrake, Monticello, Swan Lake and White Sulphur Springs. Livingston Manor was on stand-by at Liberty.
Law enforcement personnel from the NYS Police and Sullivan County Sheriffs Department controlled traffic and bystanders.
According to Town of Liberty Supervisor and firefighter Richard Dick Martinkovic, one person complained of chest pains and was transported to CGH by the Town of Liberty Volunteer Ambulance Corps. He added that disaster representatives from the Sullivan County Chapter of the American Red Cross would offer emergency assistance to the victims.
As firefighters extinguished the flames around their apartment, Williams and Tinsley could only stand quietly together by the smoldering remains of the garage.