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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 3, 2010

“Like walking into hell”: Six companies douse motel inferno

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — The fire chief’s blood ran cold when he pulled up to the Governor’s Inn and Suites early Monday morning. The pitch-black sky was lit with orange and yellow flames.

The size of the fire engulfing the Route 20 motel shocked and frightened him, said Donald Gaitor, chief of the Guilderland Fire Department. He was the first to arrive on the scene at 4:11 a.m., eight minutes after the call went out.

“How does a fire get that big without anyone realizing it?” Gaitor wanted to know. He said the front of one side of the L-shaped building was completely lost in smoke and flames. He knew right away that the fire would require a lot of manpower, so he called a “Signal 30” over the radio, which automatically let other departments know their equipment was needed.

Six fire departments responded — Guilderland, Guilderland Center, Westmere, McKownville, Fort Hunter, and North Bethlehem.

“I was quite concerned at first that there wouldn’t be enough manpower because of the hour and the fact that it was a holiday weekend, but I think every department came fully-staffed,” Gaitor said. The Guilderland Police and Guilderland Emergency Medical Services were also at the scene, and successfully evacuated the 10 residents of the motel before firefighters got to work.

The fire spread quickly, according to Gaitor, because the whole roof of the motel is connected with a shared attic space, and the building is old — built in 1963 — and made entirely of wood. According to the town assessor’s office, the motel occupies 1.93 acres and 16,726 square feet, includes 40 rooms, and is valued at $1,223,600.

Containing the fire

Gaitor said firefighters “ventilated” the building by cutting a big hole in the roof, and they used three aerial pumpers to douse the flames from above. They succeeded in containing the fire to the wing where it had started.

It took about 45 minutes to get the fire under control, Gaitor estimated, but he said 45 minutes could feel like an eternity for a firefighter breathing compressed air and operating a powerful hose. The fire had to be attacked entirely from the outside, because it was too dangerous to enter the building, said Gaitor.

“To walk in when we first got there would have been suicide. It would have been like walking into hell,” Gaitor said.

Guilderland Center firefighters were able to go into the structure once the fire was out to check for hot spots, and Gaitor said they did find some small fires behind walls that they were able to extinguish. The fire was contained to the wing where it had started.

“All of the fire departments did what they were trained to do, and worked perfectly together as a team. It was very rewarding to watch everyone work together as one unit for a successful fire attack. It ran like a well-oiled machine,” Gaitor said.

Gaitor said he was especially grateful that police officers and emergency services volunteers were on the scene to evacuate motel residents, because he and the other firefighters were able to focus on controlling the fire instead of performing rescues. Residents at the scene told Gaitor that they had not heard any type of alarm to alert them to the fire, and that it was the smell of smoke that had awakened them.

Guilderland’s Chief Fire Inspector, Donald Albright, told The Enterprise the code requires motels, and all businesses, to have working smoke alarms. Inspections are performed annually, according to Albright, and two years ago, the Governor’s Inn did not have alarms that were up to code. Upon re-inspection, however, the problems were fixed, said Albright.

There was no sprinkler system in the motel, and Gaitor said he speculated that the building was constructed and occupied before the time that sprinkler codes were created and enforced.

Red Cross wants to help

Several residents told Gaitor they had contacted the Red Cross for help, and were informed that the organization had a policy not to respond to private businesses, which should have contingency plans for emergency situations.

Siobhan Kent, a spokesperson for the Red Cross, told The Enterprise that the organization typically does not respond when private businesses are affected, but that it has come to understand that the Governor’s Inn and Suites was a primary residence for six of the 10 people who were staying there when the fire occurred.

“We hadn’t really realized there were people living there. As their primary residence, the hotel is still responsible for their sheltering needs, but we will be able to provide financial assistance for food, clothing, and crisis counseling,” Kent said. She said the Red Cross was putting the word out, and hoping the residents of the motel would come to them for help.

The cause of the fire, according to the Guilderland Police Department, is still under investigation. The Guilderland Fire Investigation Unit conducted a cause and origin investigation, and the state’s Office of Fire Prevention and Control and its trained dogs. The dogs are trained to sniff out potential fire accelerants, said Gaitor.

Representatives of the Albany County Fire Coordinators Office and Guilderland Operations Unit were also on the scene, as were the Altamont Rescue Squad and Western Turnpike Ambulance.

Gaitor said he wanted to send a big thank-you to all of the volunteers who got up on a holiday weekend to help save the property.

“Everybody talks about firefighters having courage, and, until you see it in action, it’s just words,” Gaitor concluded. “I saw that courage on Monday, and it moved me.”

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