Partygoers escape fire

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Fire forced about 75 people to flee a Christmas party at the Greater Suffolk Elks Lodge #206 on Saturday night. The blaze caused $175,000 in damages to the historic building located in the 800 block of East Washington Street.

Nobody was injured, but the blaze was so intense that an adjacent residence was evacuated. Suffolk Fire Capt. Jim Judkins said that home received only minor heat damage, thanks to the efforts of firefighters on the scene.

Judkins, who also serves as Suffolk’s Emergency Management coordinator, said it took about an hour to bring the fire under control.

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&uot;Our primary concern was for the people inside the building,&uot; he said. &uot;We wanted to make sure they got out safely and after that, we focused our attention on the blaze. We also evacuated the home at 107 S. Division Street when it was also threatened by the blaze.&uot;

Firefighters remained on the scene for five hours, making sure no &uot;hot spots&uot; were left to re-kindle flames. According to the captain, three engine companies, a ladder company, and a unit from Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad responded, with about 25 firefighters on the scene.

The fire department was called about 11:53 p.m.

&uot;Police units arrived on the scene to find flames blazing through an upstairs rear window,&uot; said the captain. &uot;Fire units arrived moments later as flames engulfed the entire second story of the structure. Firefighters had to pour massive quantities of water on the blaze to contain it and extinguish flames. In addition to the total loss of the building, the lodge lost about $40,000 in contents in the fire.&uot;

Residents within a three-block radius of the facility lost phone service, Judkins added.

Lodge representatives advised officials at the scene that the building and its contents were insured, and fire investigators continue to work in determining the source of the fire, which is believed to be an accident.

Judkins said a passerby who saw smoke and flames issuing from an upstairs rear window reported the fire. He alerted the doorman at the lodge and members rushed upstairs to find that a fire was burning on a desk. They attempted to extinguish the flames but without success.

&uot;The upstairs was on fire and none of the mass of people inside the downstairs even realized that they were in danger,&uot; said Judkins. &uot;It’s just very fortunate that the passerby saw the fire before it got more serious. This could have been a real tragedy had he not seen it.&uot;

Interestingly enough, it was 60 years ago that another fire burned a nightclub in Boston, Mass., killing 492 people. It was the famed Coconut Grove where a fire broke out in the kitchen and rampaged into the ballroom of the club.

In that event, more than 1,000 diners and dancers packed the Grove, many preparing to go overseas for military duty in World War II. Those who perished were trapped in the inferno because they crushed up against the doors of the facility.

The worst such fire in history, the event directly influenced the passage of legislation that requires doors in public buildings to open outwardly, rather than inwardly, as they did at the Grove.

&uot;The Coconut Grove fire prompted major efforts in the field of fire prevention and control for nightclubs and other places where there is public assembly,&uot; said Judkins. &uot;The fire marshals and other fire officials often get looked at like &uot;Scrooge,&uot; because we stop people from entering public buildings once the place fills to capacity. We don’t want to spoil their fun, but we also do not want another Coconut Grove incident on our hands. We must limit the number of people for their own safety.&uot;