Historic Vermont hotel fire is remembered 40 years laterHERALD File Photo
City firefighters brave subzero temperatures trying to get the Hotel Berwick fire under control in January 1973.
The worst fire in Rutland City’s history broke out 40 years ago this month at a former four-story hotel, leaving a hole that has yet to be filled in the middle of downtown Rutland.
Five people died in the Hotel Berwick fire at the corner of Wales and Center streets — one of them because he went to fetch a pair of shoes.
The years since the massive blaze have made it hard for Edward Dalto, 79, to remember all the details of that chaotic night. But the former Rutland firefighter said he still recalls the role he played in helping two people escape a fourth-floor room as well as a man he said was left behind because he chose to run a fatal errand.
Dalto was a 39-year-old fireman when the call to suit up came in early on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 7, 1973.
The truck he drove to the corner of Wales and Center streets was the first fire vehicle on the scene and he and other members of the crew spent the first few minutes helping people move off the fire escapes.
Renovations were taking place at the Berwick (also known, briefly, as the Town House), but 28 residents still lived there when the fire broke out. Many were pouring out of rooms and windows on the Center Street side of the building when firefighters arrived.
A fatal errand
Dalto said he remembered going alone to see if people were trapped in the upper floors on the building’s west side.
“I was a little beyond the Townhouse Restaurant on the first floor when I glanced up and could see the silhouette of two people on the fourth floor,” he recalled.
Dalto and two other firefighters, Michael Walsh and Ray Mooney, fetched a ladder and hoisted it up against the building. Dalto said he climbed to the top and yelled into the room but heard no answer.
“I was gonna go in when I saw the shadow of a guy and I reached in, grabbed him and pulled him out,” Dalto said. “He came out onto the ladder on his back and there was a lady hanging on to his legs at the other end. ... She was shouting something, but it was so loud I couldn’t hear.”
Dalto and the other firefighters also had their hands full at the time getting the man and woman to safety.
It wasn’t until after they were all on the ground that Dalto said the woman told him another man had been with them but he left to fetch her shoes.
“I said ‘We got to go back up.’ But the guy standing next to me said ‘We’re not going back up,’” Dalto said. “I looked and saw red light coming out of the window.”
The retired firefighter said he no longer remembers the name of the two people he rescued or of the man left behind on the fourth floor. But he said he was sure that the unknown man who chased after the woman’s shoes never left the Berwick alive.
“If he had stayed there (with the other two people) it could have been possible that he would have made it,” Dalto said.
Four others died in the fire that night, but most occupants escaped through the efforts of firefighters and volunteers.
Thomas LaFond came to the scene as one of more than 1,000 bystanders that night.
But since he was one of the first on the scene, LaFond, now the city’s retired parking enforcement officer, was asked to help firefighters lift ladders into place.
He said he had a chance to witness what several former firefighters described as the last use of a net to catch upper-floor fire jumpers in U.S. history. Charles Butler, 69, couldn’t reach a ladder and tumbled from a fourth-story window. Butler and one of the men holding the net were injured in the fall.
LaFond was also injured in the rescue when the ladder he was positioning for Butler snapped shut on his finger, all but severing the digit. “A lot of people put themselves in harm’s way that night,” he said.
Among those in danger was Rutland Herald reporter Nick Marro, who remembers hanging precariously from the building next door on Center Street to get an iconic shot that ran on the newspaper’s front page the next day.
“I was hanging off the sign on Wilson’s Sports when I took that shot,” Marro recalled, referring to the downtown building that was most recently home to Ladabouche Furniture.
That building with its exterior firewall is credited by retired Rutland Fire Lt. Ray Mooney with sparing the rest of the wooden Center Street buildings from sharing the same fate as the Berwick.
But the preservation of the downtown was far from a certain thing for Mooney and other city firefighters who engaged in a desperate battle to contain the inferno.
Few injuries were reported among those who fought the blaze, but Mooney said there were plenty of close calls. He said he remembers being in the basement of the nearby Rutland Herald building, fighting flames that had spread to the Mercury Building — another structure owned by the Herald that was connected to the newspaper via a tunnel.
When the Mercury building collapsed, Mooney said he and another firefighter barely escaped.
“We were running with embers flying all around us,” he said. “We were stunned afterward. It was just unbelievable.”
The Mercury Building wasn’t the only building adjacent to the Berwick that was destroyed. On the Center Street side, another shop was consumed by flames. The heat from the inferno was so intense that LaFond remembers feeling it baking through brick walls and bubbling paint that covered the masonry on the hotel’s walls.
The light from the towering blaze could be seen from several towns away, witnesses recalled.
But no one who was there can recall the heat without also remembering the cold. Temperatures dropped to 20 below zero during the night and pictures taken the following day show ruins encased in frost and icicles.
“A hose let loose and sprayed water all over me,” Marro recalled. “It froze as soon as it hit me and I couldn’t move. It was like being in a block of ice. I had to go home and change my clothes.”
The arctic temperature also took its toll on firefighters whose most severe injuries that night were related to weather.
“We had frozen ears and stuff like that,” retired Rutland Fire Lt. Frank Walsh said. “Wilson’s Sports opened up his shop and was handing out clothing. We cleaned him out right away of gloves and mittens.”
By the morning of Jan. 7 only hot spots under the rubble remained to be doused. But several days of work involving cranes and Vermont National Guard crews were needed to sift through the debris in search of human remains.
The remaining walls of the great hotel were knocked down; the bricks and mortar, wood and shattered glass were hauled away, leaving an empty foundation that looks today much like it did 40 years ago.
Over the years, the “Pit” — the popular name for the hole in the ground that remains at the corner of Center and Wales streets — has been the subject of numerous inquiries, according to Catherine Nelson, general manager at the Rutland Herald.
“We’ve had multiple developers ask about the site, but there’s nothing concrete in the works,” she said.
During the last decade, the Rutland County Community Land Trust announced plans to build a four-story building on the site that would include room for its offices, the Rutland Free Library, Community College of Vermont classrooms and affordable housing units.
But that proposal never got off the ground and CCV recently moved into a new building at the corner of West and Wales streets.
For now and the foreseeable future, the Pit will continue to function the way it has for years — as a public parking lot leased to the city by the newspaper for a dollar annually — and as a grim reminder of that horrific fire four decades ago.
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