Fire Destroys Historic Hotel in Punxsutawney

More than 100 firefighters worked for nine hours to control a six-alarm fire that destroyed a historic hotel in Punxsutawney, PA, on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011. As fire conditions worsened, the interior attack was abandoned and crews were ordered out of the building.

The fire involved the Hotel Punxsutawney and Smugglers Inn, a three-story, 45-by-90-foot, ordinary-construction brick and heavy-timber structure built in 1908. A one-story, 45-by-60-foot concrete block addition was built in the early 1970s. Both buildings had flat tarpaper roofs. The first floor contained two bars, a kitchen and a dining room, the second floor housed six guest rooms and the third floor was under renovation to include a fitness room and meeting space. There were no fire protection or detection systems in either structure.

Punxsutawney is one of the most famous small towns in America, thanks to a groundhog named “Punxsutawney Phil.” Every year on Groundhog Day (Feb. 2), more than 20,000 people visit Gobbler’s Knob to learn Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction for the length of winter. The borough, in Jefferson County, has about 6,200 residents.


Units dispatched

Jefferson County EMS unit Medic 51 was passing the building and reported the fire to the Jefferson County 911 Center. The Punxsutawney Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at the Hotel Punxsutawney at 108 North Findley St. at 2:57 A.M.

The Punxsutawney Fire Department is comprised of three volunteer organizations – the Central Fire Department, Elk Run Volunteer Fire Company and Lindsey Fire Company. Central Engine 20-1, Central Rescue 20, Elk Run Engine 30, Lindsey Engine 40, Lindsey Tower 40 (a 100-foot ladder platform) and Lindsey Heavy Rescue 40 responded with 25 firefighters under the command of Fire Chief Paul Hense. At 2:58 A.M., the McCalmont Township Volunteer Fire Department was requested for a rapid intervention team to the scene and the Big Run Volunteer Fire Department was requested for standby at Punxsutawney Station 20 with Engines 16 and 17.

First-arriving units found fire in the kitchen of Smugglers Inn, located in the single-story portion of the building where the two buildings were connected and smoke issuing from the third-floor C side of the hotel section. There were no civilian life-safety issues as the bar had closed at 2:30 A.M. and a call to the building’s owner confirmed the hotel was unoccupied.


Initial operations

Engine 20-1 laid a 200-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant at East Mahoning and South Findley streets to the front, A side, of the hotel on North Findley Street. Engine 40 laid a 300-foot, five-inch line from Ground Hog Lanes on Pine Street to Torrence Alley and Pine Alley. Engine 30 was positioned on the hydrant at Torrence and Pine. Tower 40 was positioned at the B/C corner of the building and supplied by a 100-foot, five-inch line from Engine 40. Rescue 40 was positioned on Pine Alley and Rescue 20 was positioned on North Findley Street.

Firefighters advanced two 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack lines from Engine 20-1 into the hotel through the A-side front door. One crew advanced to the second floor, where the firefighters encountered light smoke, but no fire. The other crew advanced to the third floor, where the firefighters found heavy smoke, but no fire. Crews advanced a 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack line from Engine 30 to the B-side kitchen door, where they were met with heavy fire. A 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack line was advanced into the kitchen area of the single-story structure on side C from Engine 30.

The Brookville Volunteer Fire Department was requested for standby at the scene at 3:21 A.M. Brookville Engine 2 and Tower 2 (a 95-foot aerial platform) responded.


Conditions worsen

The interior attack was abandoned at 3:30 A.M. as fire conditions worsened and fire crews were evacuated from the building. Tower 40 placed its aerial master stream into operation, Engine 20-1 put its deck gun to work and a portable monitor was positioned on the B side of the single-story building and supplied by a 100-foot, 2½-inch line from Engine 30.

Hense requested an additional rapid intervention team from the Sykesville Volunteer Fire Department at 3:35 A.M. Sykesville Squad 8 responded.

At 3:40 A.M., Hense requested the Reynoldsville Volunteer Fire Department to respond to the scene. Reynoldsville Engine/Rescue 6 and Tower 6 (a 100-tower ladder) responded. Engine/Rescue 6 laid a 200-foot, five-inch line from East Mahoning Street and Pine Alley to the D side of the building. Reynoldsville Tower 6 was positioned on the D side of the three-story structure and supplied with a 50-foot, five-inch line from Engine/Rescue 6.

Hense asked City of DuBois Volunteer Hose Company Number 1 to respond to the staging area at Punxsutawney Station 20 at 4:23 A.M. DuBois Engine 72 and Truck 72 (a 105-foot aerial ladder) responded.

Hense declared the fire under control at 5 A.M. Mutual aid departments began being released at 6 A.M. The last Punxsutawney units left the scene at noon.


Fire investigation

The Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Unit conducted an investigation into the origin and cause of the fire. It was determined that the fire originated in the kitchen of the one-story building. The cause of the fire is undetermined. The weather was overcast with a temperature of 28 degrees and 10-mph winds at the time of the fire.

More than 100 firefighters battled the fire for nine hours. Four hydrants on the municipal water system supplied approximately 500,000 gallons of water to extinguish the fire. One firefighter was injured when struck by a master stream. Damage was estimated at $900,000.