Tag Archives: Tunnels

The Fire of 79

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IMG_2647Bay Place Hotel was ancient; well over a hundred years old, situated on the large, open-mouthed river that split Blue Tide in two. The hotel was marvelously ornate, and back in the 1920’s and ‘30’s it had been the place to be – the home of bootleggers and beautiful flappers. In 1979 – on the night of the fire – it was still the finest hotel in town with both a decent restaurant and a lively bar that stayed open until midnight.

On November 30th of that year, a small spark in the off-code wiring flickered into a flame behind the wall of room 1003. Since alarms and sprinklers were not mandated at that time, the fire continued to silently grow until a curl of black smoke settled over the couple in 1003. At 12:07 a.m. Barbara Reed began coughing in her sleep, startling awake her husband, John. The Reeds stumbled through the dense smoke to the door and fled the room. They pounded on doors, sounding the alarm as they ran.

The guests on the first floor were lucky. Because of the Reeds, everyone was able to get out. Unfortunately the elderly couple in the room 2003 – the room situated directly above the Reeds – wasn’t so lucky. They slept through it all and died of smoke inhalation in their sleep, never even aware that the end was upon them.

The other guests on the second floor flung themselves out the low windows to the cold ground below, safe and alive. The worse injury any of the window-jumpers suffered was a broken arm. A few twisted their ankles but in all, the survivors were ok, milling aimlessly about the lawn of the hotel in various stages of shock and undress. Only a few had enough time to throw on their street clothes. Most everyone else wore only pajamas and were huddled together, shivering. There were three sorry individuals who were actually naked, self-consciously wrapping themselves in their arms, waiting until someone could offer them a blanket or other covering.

The fire fighters arrived within four minutes but by then the old, rotten wood of the century-old hotel had turned to kindle. The fire was too hot to even approach and the firefighters hosed it down from a distance, frustrated. It continued to roar viciously into the night, licking the sky with its fingers, brightening the midnight clouds with its orange and yellow flames.

The fire chief sat on the lip of his truck gathering the names of those who had been inside, both guests and staff. The hotel wasn’t full – it never was – but he still couldn’t come up with an exact number of people in the 35 rooms. Darrell McCavidge, the hotel manager, thought there may have been 20-25 guests in the hotel that night but couldn’t be sure. The guest registry had burned up with the hotel.

Darrell McCavidge did know that three staff had been still working after midnight when the fire started: the night clerk dozing behind the desk, the bartender who was closing up just as the fire had started, and the maintenance man, Lou Parker. All were accounted for except for Parker.

As the hotel melted away and daylight dawned, the firefighters spotted the bodies of the unlucky couple from the second floor. People gasped and cried when they saw the burned flesh and bones. The Medical Examiner from Center City was called and when they were pronounced dead, the coroner backed up his hearse and gathered the remains into body bags. The hearse wailed as it pulled out on its sad and lonely journey to the morgue.

By noon, a fine mist began to saturate the city. The Fire Chief determined that the remains of the building were finally cool enough to begin the search and rescue mission for Lou Parker. His firemen stepped gingerly on the scarred wood and scrap metal of what had been known as Bay Place Hotel, calling for Lou Parker, hoping against hope. There was an old, stone basement in the hotel and they thought it was possible he could be trapped down there, unconscious, but most of them knew better. If he was in that stone basement, he was dead. No one could have survived the smoke and fire. And if by some miracle he had, he had no doubt been crushed when the building had imploded.

But they didn’t know something Lou Parker did: that hidden behind the enormous four-legged furnace in the stone basement of the hotel was a concealed door of steel. Open that door and you would find a long tunnel leading underground and away from the hotel.

When Lou had first discovered the tunnel many years ago, he had only meandered into it for a few paces before turning back. He didn’t feel that it was his place to explore further since he was just the maintenance man, after all. He had to admit, though, he was curious and on days when the work was slow, he would find himself standing in front of the door, thinking about what could possibly be down that long, underground tunnel.

He had been in the basement when the commotion started the previous night, but he hadn’t noticed the fire until fingers of smoke wiggled their way through the vents and down to the basement. By the time Lou made his way up the stairs to the ground floor and opened the door, the hotel was already fully engulfed. Black smoke hung thickly in the air stinging his eyes, scorching his throat, rushing quickly through the door.

He slammed the door and ran back down the stairs and through the stored linens and boxes of light bulbs in the basement. He scurried behind the monster furnace and threw open the door to the underground tunnel.

And then he ran.

He ran through the darkness, stumbling over his own feet once, the ground beneath him wet and slick with moisture. The dankness of the river hung heavily in the air and a stray drop of water fell onto his head every few feet – a plink of coldness. As he ran he heard rats scurrying out of his way, their long nails scratching through the wet dirt. Every few moments he’d risk a glance over his shoulder, worried the thick smoke had followed him to his death. But it seemed the old metal door to the tunnel had held the fire back.

When he reached the end of the tunnel he was surprised; he hadn’t expected it to just stop. Had he not been forced to slow his pace as the ceiling overhead became lower and lower, he would have crashed head first into the concrete wall.

Lou could smell the murky water close now. The river was most likely just on the other side, held back only by a retaining wall.

And he was trapped.

If the tunnel had been built strictly to hide those bootleggers so many years ago, why would it wind under the city for over a mile with no exit, Lou wondered. With a concrete wall at the end, the police could have simply followed the tunnel to its finality and arrested the criminals trapped there.

He began to paw at the walls, running his hands over the slimy surface. Surely there was an exit somewhere, he thought. The concrete crumbled a bit under his touch but was solid. Frustrated, he reached over his head. Where he stood the ceiling was approximately six feet high. Lou Parker was well taller than that so he was forced to crouch as his fingers searched the cold stone ceiling.

And then finally – Eureka! He felt the texture of the ceiling change from stone to metal, his hands circling a wide metal plate slotted into the ceiling. Lou moved his face closer and squinted his eyes. He could just make out the outline of a hatch and to his great relief could tell that it was definitely large enough to accommodate a man. And it had a latch!

When he pried it open, he expected to see daylight but there was still only darkness. It appeared that the metal plate had been carpeted over from the other side. Lou reached into his tool belt, pulled out his box cutter and sliced through the old musty carpet, bits of fabric and carpet padding sputtering back into his face as he worked.

When Lou lifted himself through the opening, he found himself in an abandoned shack at the edge of downtown – probably the old house of the bridge keeper and his wife, he imagined. It was a dank, stone structure with a rusted sink and an old, broken stove in one corner. A small bedroom and an even smaller bathroom were off to one side, two mildewed, brittle towels still hanging on the edge of the bathtub. The windows were covered by lumber from the inside. Lou thought he could just pound the plywood from the windows and break the glass but to his chagrin he found the windows and doors had also been fitted with iron bars. From what he could tell there had definitely been security overkill to protect such a shabby place. It had probably been abandoned for the past fifty years.

Lou Parker sighed and sat down heavily. He knew he had been lucky to escape the fire but now he was trapped yet again. He had nothing in his tool belt to cut through iron bars and it was 1979 – far before the advent of cell phones.

He grabbed his hammer and pounded out the glass and plywood from the front window, anyway, until only the security bars remained. As he thought, the building was alone and abandoned, very near the rushing sounds of the river and away from any other structures. He hoped that if he yelled loud enough, someone would eventually hear him.

It took two days.

The firefighters, who knew nothing of the hidden tunnel, were stumped by the lack of a body back at the hotel but assumed the fire had reduced Lou Parker to ash. The coroner was close to signing a death certificate when finally a couple of kids scrounging for scrap metal near the river had heard Lou’s cries and ran to the diner up the block to call the police.

In December the place once known as Bay Place Hotel was completely razed and the rubble and debris hauled away to the junkyard, and as 1979 rolled over to 1980, Lou Parker packed up his old Chevy and drove away from Blue Tide for the last time. He had decided to relocate to Chicago to be near his daughter and her family. Lou wasn’t a superstitious man but figured that once you escape death in one place, it’s probably not a good idea to stick around. Who knows when your luck might run out?