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Democrat Photo by Dan Hust

MORNING’S LIGHT SHOWED a scene of devastation at the main building of the Villa Roma in Callicoon. Only the entrance overhang remained of what was once the resort’s grand centerpiece.

Disaster Strikes
The Villa Roma

By Nathan Mayberg
CALLICOON — April 14, 2006 – One of the most devastating fires in recent Sullivan County history took down the main building of the Villa Roma – one of the county’s biggest employers – Tuesday night.
The fire was the largest to hit an operating hotel since the main building of the Paramount Hotel in Parksville was ravaged by a fire five and a half years ago.
But the Paramount has since closed. With approximately 400 employees, the Villa Roma is the last major resort hotel in operation in the county, besides Kutsher’s. It is by far the largest employer in western Sullivan County.
And despite the disaster, hotel officials say they plan to rebuild.
But what a job it will be – the fire took out the resort’s main dining room, reservation desk, lobby, kitchen and several rooms.
According to Sullivan County Public Safety Commissioner Richard Martinkovic and Villa Roma Operations Manager Luis Alvarez, the trouble began Tuesday night after an orthodox Jewish group had completed its cleansing process of the kitchen for the upcoming Passover holiday. The group was staying at the hotel for the next week.
The ovens in the bakery were heated up to clean off any remaining residue. Around 10 p.m. the work was completed and the Rabbi left. About 10-15 minutes later, the fire alarm went off.
Fire officials believe the cause was accidental. The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation by the Sullivan County Bureau of Fire.
The Hortonville Fire Department was the first on the scene. They were eventually joined by nearly two dozen other departments, representing more than half of Sullivan County’s entire firefighting forces.
Hortonville Fire Chief Jon Duffy said, “When we first got here, we had a good initial attack. We thought we had it out but it just got worse, and worse and worse.
“I don’t have words to describe it,” he said. “It was a good job done by everybody. Our firefighting efforts could not have come together any better.
“With something like this, everybody showed up,” he said. “It looks like a mess, but it was a hell of a save.
“Now we can relate to the big city fires,” he said. “This was the biggest fire in Hortonville fire department’s history.”
In the early stages, firefighters were fighting the flames and smoke from inside. Meanwhile, about 78 guests and 10-15 hotel employees were evacuated.
The fire looked to be under control several times, even as late as midnight. But according to firefighters and management, the fire kept finding more space to spread. From underneath the floor, through walls, and false ceilings due to many additions, the fire kept surprising the responders.
By 1 a.m., the fire had started consuming the structure seemingly unabated. The combination of the fire and the hoses fighting it broke the windows in front. High flames and smoke from the roof could be seen and smelled miles away. Whole sections of the building were torn to shreds.
By 3 a.m., the situation grew dire as the fire began to spread towards a walkway which leads to the guest rooms. Volunteers from the Hortonville Fire Department led the bulldozing of that hallway to prevent it from spreading.
The building’s other walkway, which leads to its indoor pool and nightclub, was saved in part due to the cement wall which connects it to the main building.
In addition, firefighters cut into the ceiling of the two wings and had waterlines in the walkways to keep them wet and cool amidst 600-degree temperatures.
Four firefighters were taken to Catskill Regional Medical Center for smoke inhalation, but their conditions did not appear to be serious.
Battalion Coordinators Joe Mellan of Highland Lake F.D. and Tom Totten of White Sulphur Springs, worked alongside Duffy to coordinate an internal attack on the fire.
At one time, 22 firefighters were inside the building, trying to stop the blaze from spreading.
“We broke down into fire department teams to do the attack work,” Mellan said.
There were two teams in the breezeways which led in both directions from the main hotel as well as firefighters on the roof.
“It was scary, damn scary,” Mellan said. “There was a lot of smoke.
Firefighters trench cut the breezeways to allow the fire to turn back on itself and keep it from spreading to the rest of the hotel.
“We had to make a lot of quick decisions,” Mellan said. “We were always thinking safety.”
Martinkovic also helped coordinate the fight against the blaze. He said the wooden frame of the building made it easy for the fire to spread and difficult to stop.
It was not until daylight that the fire was brought under control. Luckily, firefighters from 22 area departments were able to prevent the massive flames from reaching the wings leading to the guest rooms. Only 15 of the approximately 200 rooms were taken down by the blaze.
On top of that, the indoor pool was left unscathed, as was the golf course, clubhouse, nightclub, gym, tennis center, bowling alley, arcade, outdoor pools and 24 timeshare buildings.
Hotel ownership is dedicated to rebuilding as soon as possible, said Alvarez and spokesman Josh Sommers Cohen. An estimate on the damage was not available, but it will certainly be in the millions.
Any doubt as to the hotel’s commitment to rebuilding can be dismissed based on the actions of Craig Passante and Holiday Mountain, said Cohen. Passante’s father, Marty, owns the Villa Roma Hotel, along with General Manager Paul Carlucci. Despite massive flooding which destroyed the old ski chalet at Holiday Mountain, Passante built a new chalet and renovated the mountain within a matter of months before the new ski season opened.
All events booked at the clubhouse will remain intact, including all proms, said Cohen. The golf course remains open along with the bumper boats and this weekend’s Easter dinner at the Club at Villa Roma, said Alvarez.
It is not known yet when the rooms will be ready for regular booking, however. Officials said it could be several weeks.
Cohen said the hotel has not laid off anybody yet and will need staff to handle the approximately 200 timeshare apartments at the resort. The clubhouse will be utilized for dinners.
Those responsible for attracting visitors to the area were heartened by the fact, though the devastation still packed a wallop.
“It was horrible to see, Sullivan County Visitors Assn. President and CEO Roberta Byron-Lockwood said. “I’m just broken hearted on so many different levels.
“But I’m confident that they will be moving very quickly. They are handling their customers, their workforce and it will be up and running,” Byron-Lockwood said. “The transition will be as seamless as possible and their first-rate staff will certainly take care of business.”
Those planning on celebrating Passover at the hotel were rerouted to the Fallsview and Nevele in Ulster County.
“We’re so sorry, because we know this represents not only a great vacation spot for people but a lot of the workforce in this part of the county,” said Martinkovic.
“It’s a devastating situation,” said Cohen. “Right now they are analyzing the extent of the damage and coming up with a plan to open as soon as possible.”

Democrat Photo by Nathan Mayberg

THE MAIN BUILDING of the Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon is a raging inferno as firefighters from more than half the county’s volunteer departments apply powerful streams of water Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. While the structure housing the reservation desk, dining room, kitchen and administrative offices was totally destroyed, the rest of the hotel was spared thanks to dedicated efforts by emergency officials. The well-known hotel’s management said they plan to rebuild.

'Like Watching Your
Own House Burn'

By Jeanne Sager
CALLICOON — April 14, 2006 – As the sirens pierced the night, Mildred Meyer lit a candle and prayed the rosary.
“I said, ‘God, help us,’” she recalled, her voice catching.
Meyer is one of more than 400 employees of the Villa Roma, and one of the many who gathered Wednesday just along the outer edge of the yellow caution tape that cordoned off the devastation.
The fire that claimed the main building of western Sullivan County’s largest employer was the talk of the town.
“Did you hear?” people asked in the grocery store.
“Oh, my God,” they whispered in the streets.
After fire officials reopened the town road that runs through the grounds, a steady stream of gawkers made their way past.
Some pulled into the parking lot of the gym and racquetball court, the nose of their cars facing the gutted hotel, their eyes wide open in shock.
Meyer huddled with other employees, people who’d left the hotel the day before and expected to report for work Wednesday morning – as usual.
Meyer got a call around 11 p.m. Tuesday night.
She and husband Gene live in Cochecton Center, but both are employed by the Villa Roma – her in bookkeeping, him as head of construction.
“Everything you see here, he built,” she said, shaking her head.
More accurately, it was everything you didn’t see.
Where there was once a lobby, front desk, dining rooms and conference center there were charred embers.
An air conditioning unit once perched on the roof had fallen into the rubble – there was no roof left to support it.
Still people flocked to Callicoon to see it – employees standing outside of the timeshare office said they watched car after car drive through slowly, ogling the hotel’s remains. (Set quite a distance from the main building, the timeshare office was safe from fire, but workers were left with no phone or electricity.)
In Jeffersonville and Callicoon, the folks who hadn’t yet been up to the Beechwoods were planning to.
Barbara Schultz of Hortonville said she heard the fire sirens go off in the night, but she didn’t know the magnitude of the disaster until she heard the radio the next morning.
“I was shocked,” she said.
Like most people in western Sullivan County, Schultz said she’s always known at least one person who works at the Villa or worked at the Villa.
Her husband, Joe, put in his hours as a short order cook when he was still in high school at Delaware Valley Central School.
She was attending Jeff-Youngsville at the time, and Schultz said half her classmates waited tables or worked on the golf course up at the Villa.
“I think I was upset for all the people who lost their jobs,” Schultz said. “How much it devastates their lives...”
Becky Houghtaling, 30, of North Branch had been employed at the Villa Roma for 13 years.
“I started here when I was 17," she said. "I've been here almost half my adult life."
Today she works in the bookkeeping office with Meyer, and like Meyer, she got word Tuesday night after the fire began.
"Oh my God, watching it last night just sent me into shock,” Houghtaling said Wednesday. “It was like watching your own house burn. We've all cried quite a few times. It's been my social life, my everything."
The Villa was “everything” for dozens of employees who’ve called the resort their home away from home.
Tom Kutschera, executive chef at the Villa Roma for the past 28 years, sat on the back of a pick-up truck Wednesday morning staring at the hotel, physically and mentally exhausted from the tragedy.
“This was a family-run business. Marty [Passante] always said the Villa Roma owed its success to the identity of its staff,” he said. “Most of the employees have been here 10-plus years – Chef Rich Cina has 31 years, and Chef Pete Selthafner has 30 years here.”
Maxine Kavleski first heard about the blaze on the radio. A 5 1/2-year employee of the Villa, Kavleski was excited to come to work Wednesday because her department, the spa, had just finished remodeling on Tuesday.
"Traumatic is the best way to describe it," she said. "After I heard it on the radio, I really didn't believe it.
“I don't know whether I felt light-headed from the smoke or from just seeing it. It is really a shame. This is a beautiful resort, and they just finished doing all the renovations on my spa. But now there's smoke damage. I'm speechless, I don't have words left to say how I feel."
Others couldn’t find even those words.
Asked how she was feeling, one employee shrugged.
“Out of a job,” she said hopelessly.

Hotel Is Still Open

By Dan Hust
CALLICOON — April 14, 2006 – Yes, according to hotel officials, the Villa Roma Resort remains open, although most activities are planned for the Club or outside.
To check on your event or to make a reservation, call 887-4880.
“Villa Roma wants to thank the responsive men and women of the Sullivan County EMS, fire and police departments for their valiant efforts, and we are thankful that our emergency systems ensured everyone’s safety. We will work diligently to reopen as soon as possible, keeping Villa Roma a popular resort and positive part of the county’s economy,” said management.

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