THE FIRE AT THE CURRY HOTEL.
I'd guess it was around 6:00 in the morning that Dad came busting into my room, yelling that the building was on fire and to get dressed and get out. There was plenty of smoke, so fear was instant. I managed a T-shirt, a pair of pants, my shoes and – Panda! (I still have Panda!)
Dad told us later that he knew how desperate the situation was; he was buying every split second he could. Otherwise, he'd have carried all three of us out, himself. Remembering the events myself; I had no problem understanding.
By the time I got to the hotel lobby, I'd lost one shoe. Karen was already there, but my younger sister, Julie was missing. She was so sleepy, she decided to go back to bed! Fortunately, Dad missed her quickly enough and carried her out.
An unfortunate bit of family dirt is that my mom was an alcoholic. To avoid fights, Dad had taken a room in the very back of the hotel. I forget the ailment, but mom was in the hospital in Anchorage, at the time. It was probably alcohol related, in some fashion.
Looking at the rear view of the hotel, Dad was staying in the upper room, to the extreme right of the old annex portion; looking at the rear of the annex.
In any case, Dad later recounted that he'd gotten up at his usual time, smelled the smoke and came barreling down the hallway – in a panic.
About midway down the connecting hallway, a door on the south side burst open, the flames burning his hair. On he went, to get us out.
Only a guest was otherwise in that part of the hotel, behind the flames, at that point. Unfortunately, she and her Labrador Retriever were lost. The cause of the fire was never determined, presumed to be electrical. No other cause made sense.
I still remember my fear and confusion. Being eight years old, watching scared adults is quite an experience. They knew people were trapped in the fire, they just didn't know how many.
Somebody took Julie and I out onto the train platform; everybody in town had come out, by then. A couple of guys were trying to get the exterior fire hose out from its "warming" housing. By then, the crackling sound of burning wood was distinct – approaching a subtle roar; the fire spread quickly. There's something about fire which advertises its might. No one expected any part of the hotel to be saved. The hotel was steam-heated, with the wood of the building being so much ideal kindling. The hotel was gone, with the first spark. It seems to me that it was about a three-hour fire – until barely-burning coals were left.
Linda Blakely was in the restaurant area, when the fire was discovered. While she was rather the camp-following wife, she helped in the restaurant.
A closed set of double-glass fire doors contained the smoke, briefly keeping the fire a secret from those awake. When the fire broke out, Linda was at the front of the hotel and couldn't reach her daughters, asleep in the back part of the old annex. If I remember correctly, they were both less than three years old.
In modern America, most would be calling for criminal charges against Linda – but those were the "Territory" days, "daycare" hadn't been invented, yet. (That was a Russian Communist invention, enabling mothers to work. – How soon we forget!
The back end of the hotel had fire escapes, but the smoke was too thick to allow rescue. There was plenty of snow on the ground, with a tall ladder frozen to the ground, at the rear of the Annex. A couple of the GIs went around back and finally managed to get the ladder free. One went into the wrong room – discovered it empty and came out to see flames coming from the room with Linda's kids. It was long too late, the smoke had done its fatal best, by then. Still the expected guilt feelings were later recounted.
Looking at the rear view, again, Linda's room was second to the left of the upper floor. Fergie, if I remember the GI's name correctly, first went to the third room, from the left.
The night before, Linda's husband, Jim, had gone into Anchorage on the train. I seem to remember that he'd gotten into a fight with Dad and Dad fired him. Why he left Linda behind was never explained, given the chaos following the fire.
Anyway, people were rushing around in the lobby; I remember seeing "Parakeet" (the "other" Linda) cleaning out the cash register, in the restaurant. (The money disappeared.) That was the last time that I saw or heard of Parakeet. Alaska has always been a small society, I'm surprised that tales of her didn't pop up later. [UPDATE: - This account stirred up another Curry resident, from 1950 – 1953, Weaver Franklin. He advised that Parakeet moved to Anchorage, becoming another tragic fatality to the infamous Alaskan bar scene.]
Somewhere in the process, Carol Yakasoff took Julie and I to her parents Quonset hut and told us to stay there – no nonsense. I watched the fire from there, still terrified. By then, I knew that the woman and dog, and Linda's kids didn't make it out. I can't remember where Karen was, probably close to the hotel.
Before the day was out, Cliff Hudson had flown up and volunteered to take me for a while; off we went to Talkeetna. I can't remember how long I stayed with he and Ollie, but it was a fun time. That was in his "old" log home, long before it burned. I think his Army field phone "number" was one "long," two "shorts."
Ollie's sister Ruby was the first girl I ever kissed – on the cheek. I threatened and teased her for a week first. I think she would have preferred a lick from her dog, but it was better than pulling her hair. She told Ollie and I got the expected warning about being "nice."
For airports, Talkeetna had a small "city strip" and a much bigger "FAA field." Cliff and Don Sheldon operated out of the city field. One day, Ollie took me out to the FAA Field to meet Cliff. I didn't know what was going on. It turned out that a Cessna 180 had overturned on the runway. It wasn't badly hurt, just upside down. Before too long a bunch of the town's people had gathered to pull it right-side-up, using a couple of long ropes and a pickup.
Eventually, Cliff took me back to Curry, where my two sisters and I stayed with al and Ruth Yakasoff. I think Carol had gotten married; her departure made room for me. That was a good time, if my older sister hadn't gotten to stay out later than I did – it wasn't fair!
Naturally, you can't have a fire like that without the rumors. There were a lot of things said behind dad's back. As expected, one account had dad as an arsonist.
There was an insurance policy of some sort; I doubt if it was dad's; versus the Alaska Railroad. Probably a liability policy. As an adult, I later encountered the insurance adjuster who worked the fire. He didn't get much into it, but asked me for my memories on the fire's origin. I explained that the location was wrong for any arson, as the only potential candidates were too much at risk, given the location of the families.
The fire started two rooms down the hall from mine. The timing of the fire left a delayed arson out, as the only viable culprit had his family at stake and he had left on the early-morning train – probably at least 2 hours earlier. It would have taken a sophisticated timing device, for that long of a delay.
The origination of the fire was also too far from any "plausible excuse." If arson had been a factor, the kitchen area or the laundry room were the "natural" places to use. Add that dad came awfully close to getting trapped in the blaze. Only his hair was slightly burned, nothing else. If it had been an arson gone bad, his hands and chest would have been burned.
When I left my room, I remember the bright glow of the fire in the hallway, just where Dad described the burning door bursting open. I stood there, just long enough for the horror to sink in. Just the sound of the fire announced the power of that monster. A set of closed glass fire-doors allowed a unique view of the rest of the hallway, in the direction of the fire. There was plenty of smoke, but as short as I was, the fire was highly visible.
The adult gal who was lost, was only a couple of doors on the far side of the fire. Dad couldn't get to her. If Dad was any kind of arsonist, he wouldn't have risked killing people, like that. Dad was also a polio victim and didn't move fast enough to willingly risk running from a fire in a known tinder-box.
The only thing that I can imagine caused the fire was an electrical short. As loaded as the hotel was with cockroaches, I can feature a batch of those shorting out an electrical outlet. Having personally witnessed one of those events in Texas, that's not a far-out idea! Certainly, we'll never know, for sure.
What wasn't known was that dad had actually booked a huge number of 'tourist' rooms for the summer following the unexpected fire. He'd even scoped out overhauling and re-starting the ski slope rope-tow for the following winter. Except for the fire, he was on his way to some great money.
The streams around Curry had more than their share of fish; trout and grayling. The Susitna River offered up an occasional salmon. Curry had a lot of "tourist" attraction features. Even with minimal services, the aura of the Hotel was an adventure, in its own right. A variety of tourists were regularly coming through, from photographers, fishermen and even uranium prospectors.
With the consequent "cap" on profits set by the limited number of rooms in the substitute hotel, following the fire, Dad made a natural choice to go for greener pastures. Dad was three, when he got Polio; he walked with a severe limp. From that background, he was one who was difficult to get discouraged.
As bizarre as it may seem, the lease on the original hotel was on the order of fifty dollars per month – utilities included! That left a lot of profit margin, even in those times. As an indicator, cigarettes were a quarter a pack, candy bars were a dime. Room rent was $3.50 per night.