As he walks the first floor of the old Lafayette Hotel at H and Market streets in downtown, Aberdeen Fire Chief Dave Carlberg watches for nails protruding from broken boards.
For Carlberg, this may be his last chance to tour the building, slated by the city for demolition on Monday. For the Aberdeen Fire Department, the old hotel is significant in that it is the scene of one of the most horrific fire events in the city’s history. It’s of particular interest to Carlberg, the unofficial historian of the AFD.
As he walks, he identifies some of the businesses that have occupied the various rooms over the years, connected now by holes smashed in the shredded sheet rock. Carlberg said that apparently it was never re-opened as a hotel, with only the bottom floor used for commercial businesses — a paint store, a sporting goods store and a tattoo parlor among them. The air is thick with mold.
On July 3, 1949, the Lafayette was a residential hotel when a fire that started downstairs in the early morning hours rushed up a stairwell and raged through the hallways, filling the rooms with smoke and sending flames through the roof and into the sky. Despite a quick response from firefighters, who were stationed just around the corner, seven people were killed and nine were injured in the blaze.
It wasn’t the biggest fire in the city’s history, Carlberg said, “but it was the worst loss of life.”
Upstairs, the building still shows signs of the fire. The owners fixed the roof, but burnt studs still stand. Much of the trim inside is still blackened charcoal and peeling paint and wallpaper look like they have been hit with a blowtorch. The interior windows of rooms facing the hallway remain broken.
“It’s kind of eerie up here knowing seven people lost their lives,” Carlberg said.
In 2001, the building suffered severe structural damage when the Nisqually earthquake shook its foundation. After an inspection the old structure was condemned. It is being abated by the city.
Carlberg remembers talking to Harold Thornton, a retired assistant chief who was one of the first to respond to the blaze. Thornton told him that, after leaving the firehouse, the crew turned the corner at Market & I to find the entire hotel roof aglow. People were hanging from every window trying to escape. When firefighters arrived they didn’t start battling the fire, they started rescuing the victims.
Firefighters were said to be on the scene in less than a minute for the 3 a.m. alarm.
“They found guests on ledges screaming at nearly every window, with their escape cut off,” Carlberg wrote in an email. A general alarm was immediately struck for all off-duty firefighters to report. Records giving the exact number of occupants were destroyed. There could have been 30 to 35 guests there, he said.
A late cruising taxi cab driver turned in the alarm, Carlberg said. Aberdeen Police officers Don Shea and Pete Popovac heard the alarm being broadcast, sped to the hotel and started rescue work with a ladder that reached four feet short of the hotel room windows. Nevertheless, Carlberg said they saved three or four women who were sitting on window ledges.
“The driver of the big Seagrave ladder truck — Clarence Schell — never even had time to put the truck stabilizers down on the ground,” Carlberg wrote. “He immediately raised the 75-foot aerial ladder and began plucking people from the windows. Meanwhile, other firefighters were throwing ground ladders for rescue. Every firefighter was committed to the rescue of occupants.”
Carlberg said one of the guests gave her life for $48.77. Apparently, Eliza Beshers had escaped the fire, only to turn back in declaring, “oh my purse.” She was found dead clutching the purse.
Others who died include Mary Kearns, Mary Abshire, Hugh Rogers and the landlord Paul Myhr. All lived at the hotel. Tentatively identified were the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Earl Christoffersen, 34, of South Bend.