Community 'shocked': Blaze guts historic hotel in Bellefonte

Firefighters sprays water on the blaze inside the Dode Hotel building, along East High St., in Bellefonte, Pa., Sunday, September 9, 2012.  The fire started just before midnight Saturday and continued through the night.  The Dode hotel is across the street from the Centre County Courthouse.
Firefighters sprays water on the blaze inside the Dode Hotel building, along East High St., in Bellefonte, Pa., Sunday, September 9, 2012. The fire started just before midnight Saturday and continued through the night. The Dode hotel is across the street from the Centre County Courthouse. Centre Daily Times

An exhausted Brian Dann sat outside the Centre County Courthouse on Sunday afternoon, staring blankly across High Street.

There behind police tape and metal fencing stood the burned-out shell of the former Garman Hotel, which housed the Hotel Do De.

An early morning fire Sunday ripped through the business owned by Dann’s father, John Dann Sr., devastating another historic downtown building and leaving dozens homeless.

“It’s been a surreal 12 hours,” said Brian Dann, surrounded by friends and family huddled around the benches outside the courthouse.

A steady stream of Bellefonte residents joined them Sunday, some snapping pictures on cellphones, others vocalizing their disbelief.

“I’m shell-shocked,” said one onlooker. “I can’t believe it’s gone.”

The cause of the blaze, reported at about 12:30 a.m. and not under control until close to 6 a.m., remained undetermined, said Bellefonte Fire Department Chief Tim Schreffler.

Meanwhile, emergency crews, leery of possible rekindling, continued to monitor the building late Sunday. The air still smelled like smoke late Sunday evening when firefighters responded to a 911 call about the building. They remained onsite at midnight working on what one firefighter at the scene called a “hotspot.”

A state police fire marshal and local officials are set to return to the scene this morning to investigate the cause.

The Do De building, on the 100 block of East High Street between the Garman Theatre and the Centre County Courthouse Annex, was severely damaged and likely destroyed by the blaze, Schreffler said. 

The Garman Theatre sustained serious fire damage to its roof and top floors and water damage throughout, he said.

County Administrator Tim Boyde said the courthouse annex sustained minor smoke and water damage and will be open today.

All tenants of the Do De building either escaped or weren’t home at the time of the fire, said John Dann Sr., who also runs the Hotel Do De bar. All bar patrons escaped unharmed, he said.

The building appears to have the most extensive damage in the back. But it’s not known yet if that’s where the fire started.

Schreffler said the fire was so involved that he evacuated firefighters three times before being able to get the upper hand.

Neither the Garman Theatre nor Do De building had sprinklers.

But Dann said the smoke alarm went off in the Do De building, and he and others alerted the tenants living in the upper floors. The fourth floor was a storage area for antiques and other items.

Boyde said the sprinkler system in the annex didn’t activate, but the building’s fire alarm went off.

The cupola on the Do De building appeared to be sagging inward. Fire officials are expected keep the sidewalk and street closed to all traffic out of safety concerns over the building.

Stephen Dress, 33, was one of the tenants inside the building at the time of the fire. He said he heard the smoke alarm and thought it was a false alarm until he heard someone banging on the doors telling people to get out.

He said as he was leaving via a back entrance, toward Cherry Lane, he saw flames between the theater and the Do De buildings.

“They weren’t that big at the time,” he said of the flames.

He salvaged his cellphone from his one-room apartment.

The Red Cross was providing shelter and relief for those made homeless by the fire. The Salvation Army was on the scene as well. The nearby Faith Centre provided the displaced tenants with clothing.

Boyde said the Red Cross assisted 12 individuals or families with temporary housing, while the remaining residents were staying with friends or family. 

Jeff Parisou, who lives on the second floor of the building, said he arrived home from work and noticed smoke in his apartment about 11:50 p.m. Saturday.

“As far as I know, everybody was out, and that’s the whole deal of it,” Parisou, a former firefighter, said. “You can always rebuild.”

Dann, clutching a beer at his waist, watched in disbelief early Sunday morning as firefighters worked to control the blaze at the building he’s owned for 34 years. Friends, family and tenants took turns speaking with him.

Many of the tenants stood nearby, among a crowd of more than 100 bystanders, early Sunday. 

In the crowd, Rebecca Dean, of Bellefonte, watched as the smoke billowed out and an orange glow became visible from the roof, around 2 a.m.

“It’s just heart-breaking,” she said. “I’m really just glad that everyone got out OK.”

Her friend Rona Richner, one of Dann’s daughters and a bartender, said people in the Do De smelled smoke and ran out.

There were about 35 to 40 people in the bar.

Hotel Do De resident Merle Lucas also lived at Bellefonte Academy months before it was leveled by a 2004 blaze, said he just arrived for an overnight shift at the new Weis Markets when he got word of the fire.

“Somebody came and said the Do De is on fire. I left work and as soon as I came home, I see my home smoking,” Lucas said.

Larry Heeman, who’s lived there for about a year and a half, said he just turned in for the night when he heard the smoke alarms. Fighting a cough, he watched the fire from the street on a cool night wrapped in a blanket given to him by a Red Cross relief worker.

“The place filled up pretty quickly with smoke on the third floor,” he said. “I found my shoes and stumbled down the fire escape out back.”

Centre County Commissioner Chris Exarchos was on the scene early Sunday and commended firefighters for their efforts.

“They did a great job in containing the fire and not losing more buildings,” he said. “Every time you have these, it’s devastating.”

Bellefonte Borough Manager Ralph Stewart echoed those comments, saying the firefighters did “a superb job.”

“These buildings are over a 100 years old,” Stewart said. “Sometimes when they start, it’s hard to get them out. We could have lost a whole block.” 

The last fire to damage a historic downtown Bellefonte building was in December 2009, when a blaze engulfed the Cadillac Building on the corner of Bishop and Allegheny streets. The building was not demolished and the third floor remains open to the elements, but the Borough Council has discussed what to do with the structure.

Three firefighters were treated Sunday for likely smoke inhalation. Schreffler said the treatment was a precautionary measure.

The Bellefonte Fire Department was assisted by firefighters from Alpha in State College, Milesburg, Pleasant Gap, Walker Township, Philipsburg, Boalsburg and Centre Hall. Bellefonte police and Spring Township police were on the scene.