Days away from a new year, some pause to remember the past.

It’s been 32 years since the Hotel Allen fire claimed so many innocent lives.

“I’ll never forget coming down the hill and seeing a red ball of fire in the sky,” said Sharon Gunuskey of Honesdale, a member of Texas #4 Ladies Auxiliary.


Days away from a new year, some pause to remember the past.
It’s been 32 years since the Hotel Allen fire claimed so many innocent lives.
“I’ll never forget coming down the hill and seeing a red ball of fire in the sky,” said Sharon Gunuskey of Honesdale, a member of Texas #4 Ladies Auxiliary.
“Just to see that fire. And the look on all of the fireman’s faces  ... Concerned about how many people were in there and how to get them out,” she said.
“There was a person in the second floor window,” Texas #4 firefighter Paul Lautenschlager remembered.
“We got the hand ladder off of the truck and by the time we got it over to the window and put the ladder up, the person was gone. And the fire was just burning that fast, whether the floor caved in and we lost them, we don’t know. We never saw or found the person after that.”
The Nov. 5, 1978 arson fire was one of the worst Wayne County had ever seen.
Built in 1857, the three-story Hotel Allen, located at the corner of Church and 9th Streets in Honesdale, was credited with being the first concrete building in the state. But that’s not why it's remembered.
Twelve of the hotel’s occupants died the morning of the fire.
The fact that it was arson was evident, said then-Wayne County Coroner Bob Jennings.
“Huge balls of flame exploded in different areas. I knew there had to be some type of accelerant used for this type of a fire,” he said. “Fire doesn’t spread that fast. And it doesn’t create a mushroom, high volume of flames, not unless there’s some type of accelerant used. I continued to photograph the scene — record it.”
Having received intensive training at the Medical Examiner’s office in both New York City and Philadelphia, Jennings knew what to look for. His recollection of that day is vivid.
“It’s something that I’ll never forget. But there was an advantage to this particular fire, because there had been a fire there previously, a few weeks prior,” he said. “It was thought to be a suspicious fire, set at that time.”
A police probe found Frederick Blady — described in published reports as a “36-year-old drifter from New Jersey” — arrested on both fires.
A jury trial ended with Blady being charged with second degree arson in the Oct. 5 blaze, which caused more than $5,000 worth of damage to the hotel.
However, a separate trial in the fatal fire found the jury returning a much different verdict: Not guilty.
Not a year goes by that Atty. Steve Bresset, then a Wayne County Assistant District Attorney who helped prosecute the case, doesn’t think about the tragedy.
“It was a tragic event across the board. The person who I felt was responsible for it was not convicted. Frederick Weiler Blady. He’s dead now and publicly rehashing it is not going to change what happened to the people who were killed and what took place,” he said.
“You ask any trial attorney and they can tell you every detail of every case they lost and not the details of the cases they won,” Bresset said.
What stood out the most was the difference 15 minutes can make.
“[Blady] had confessed to having started the (fatal) fire during the investigation. And then his council filed a motion to suppress on the basis of what was then called the Futch-Davenport rule which requires a person be arraigned within six hours of their arrest. He was arraigned, according to the court’s conclusion, six hours and 15 minutes after he was arrested,” Bresset said.
Though they appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, suppression of the confession was upheld.
Based on that 15 minutes, Blady’s confession was thrown out.
Still facing life in prison on murder and arson-related charges involving the death of the 12 fire victims, a jury trial found Blady not guilty on all 119 counts.  
It’s a verdict that still haunts Bresset. “It was an extremely empty feeling that stays with me ‘til today,” he said.
That morning
The morning of the fatal fire, Jennings reached out to the New York City Fire Marshal’s Office for assistance.
“They arrived later that Sunday afternoon. In the meantime, I ordered that nothing be removed from the hotel ... ‘Don’t touch any of the bodies.’ They wanted the scene as it was,” he said.
Alert Hook and Ladder lifetime member Lynn Potter Bertsche, a relatively new firefighter at that time, said the clean up was difficult.
“It was really hard for people to be in there, cleaning, walking through there and looking ... trying to do the cleanup, making sure that everybody was accounted for and all of that. That was really hard,” she said.
“Not pleasant, that’s all I can say. It’s not pleasant,” Jennings said. “On that Sunday, I had a family member come up to me and they said, ‘We think our dad is in there. If you find someone in there and he has either a Lucky Strike cigarette or a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes in his hand, with his fist clenched, it’ll be our dad.’
“And that was about the second person that I came to when I got on the second floor”, he said. “And that’s sad. And then, they’re outside waiting. And I said, ‘Yes, if that’s the case, it’s your dad.’”
It would be days before all of the victims were accounted for.
“I took off work for the next three days and had the aerial ladder down there every day. We were in the third floor, looking for bodies. The roof caved in, and then the ceiling caved in and you had to dig down through that char to get down to the floor,” said Glen Gunuskey, then newly appointed foreman of Texas #4.
Offering a window into the firefighter’s world, Potter Bertsche shared,  “Firefighters work hard and it’s a lot more than just physical work.”
It’s loss of life, neighbors they know, and a loss of homes and personal possessions, she added.
Lautenschlager said it’s hard to explain to people what it’s really like and how one feels.  “When you’re at a scene like that, the only thought in your mind is: Number one, rescue anybody that’s in there. Number two, put the fire out,” he said. “And then you go back there a day later to clean up and see what the aftermath is.”
Glen Gunuskey said you just do your job.
“You’ve got to take that in stride ... In any death, in anything, it’s bad. But you’ve got to take it in stride ... People say, ‘It’s got to affect you.’ Yeah it does, but you’ve got to suppress it and do what you’re trained to do.
“And that’s what firefighters do,” Mr. Gunuskey said.
If something good could come from such senseless tragedy, it’s the life-changing rules and regulations adopted for older buildings, Jennings said.
“As a result of this fire and investigation that was made, there were a lot of new rules and regulations that were adopted for older buildings of this type,” he said.
“Myself and the fire officials from New York City were instrumental in notifying the state and recommending that they take a good look at it. And they agreed with the findings and made many changes,” he said.
However, Jennings is quick to deflect any credit from himself. “I don’t think it’s important that much about what I did or didn’t do,” Jennings continued. “The firemen, they’re the heroes. What they did, not me. I just did my job.”