BELLOWS FALLS — Larry Clark was a high school student when he joined the Bellows Falls Fire Department. On Thursday night, he was standing outside the Bellows Falls Opera House in his navy blue dress uniform, ready to go in and see the premier showing of “Called to Duty,” the documentary about the most tragic event in the department’s history.
Clark was one of more than a dozen firefighters interviewed by the film’s producers about the fatal fire at the Star Hotel in downtown Bellows Falls, and he gave his historian’s view of the events and the people involved.
“It was 40 years ago, and the memories start,” said Clark, 70, now a safety officer with the Bellows Falls department.
The Dec. 29, 1981, fire claimed the lives of young firefighters Terry Brown, 21, and Dana Fuller, 25, as they entered the burning building to rescue the elderly residents of the dilapidated downtown hotel, which housed an antique shop and a furniture refinishing workshop in the basement, where the fire broke out.
The two young men were profiled by friends and family members in the film: their childhood in Bellows Falls, their devotion to their community and their ambition to be firefighters, and ultimately, their heroism, as “they risked their life for others.”
“Dana and Terry, they made the ultimate sacrifice,” said former Bellows Falls Fire Chief John Wood, who had been named chief only weeks before the fire.
The 90-minute film is the work of Mike and Sue Smith, Marty Gallagher and Alex Stradling for Falls Area Community Television, and the documentary was filled with interviews of people who were there, family members of the fallen firefighters Dana Fuller and Terry Brown, and many historic photos of the fire from 40 years ago from area newspapers, including the Brattleboro Reformer and the former Bellows Falls News-Review.
Jeremy Youst, one of the owners of the neighboring Andrew’s Inn on The Square, spoke of the early minutes of the fire, and watching the firefighters attack the fire. Youst took many dramatic photographs of the fire from the inn’s rooftop, and later took pictures of its aftermath.
The film producers showed the film twice Thursday — first for family members and those interviewed in the film, and a later showing for the general public. The film was conceived as a fundraiser for the department and community’s effort to build a memorial park on the site of the Star Hotel. Construction is already underway and is expected to be completed by Oct. 10, the date of the annual Bellows Falls Firefighters Parade.
Mike Smith said the documentary will eventually be aired on FACTV. It was conceived as a fundraiser for the memorial park, and he said he wanted to maximize its fundraising potential.
Bellows Falls Fire Chief Shaun McGinnis said Friday that the two showings raised about $4,000 toward the goal of $30,000 for the memorial park. He said the film was “great and an amazing job by FACTV.”
He said about 130 members of the community attended the fundraiser at the Opera House, after the private showing earlier Thursday. When the documentary ended after the first showing, there was deep silence in the theater. And then applause.
The heart of the film are the rescues: first of the residents of the hotel, and then of the fallen firefighters.
Longtime Bellows Falls firefighters Brent Lisai and Steve James described rescuing two elderly women from the hotel, and how the two men switched roles as the fire escalated, and James let Lisai, who was wearing an air pack, take the lead.
Tony James, who is the current deputy chief in the department, was 14 years old at the time of the Star Hotel fire, and he said he watched with extreme fear as his father went up the ladder to rescue the residents.
Lisai emotionally described a confusing scene at the fire. “It was just chaos,” he said. “We didn’t know if anybody was on the second floor.”
Former Bellows Falls Fire Chief John Wood had only been chief a couple of weeks, and hadn’t moved from his home in Springfield when the fire broke out.
Once Wood arrived, Lisai said, “finally, we got organized.”
The now well-established system of “accountability,” where firefighters are tracked and accounted for during a fire, was not in place, Wood said. Gradually, it dawned on the firefighters that Fuller and Brown were missing and they went looking for them, at great danger to themselves.
Mark Morris of Springfield was a young Springfield firefighter at the time of the Star Hotel fire, and his remembrances were some of the most striking in the film. He told the story of when he first learned of the fire, reporting to the Springfield station, and then driving to the scene because the fire truck was already full of firefighters.
Morris and fellow Springfield firefighter Elwin Peterson helped find and rescue Dana Fuller, who had collapsed on the second floor of the hotel, when his air pack gave out.
Morris said when he and Peterson had discovered Fuller, his mask was off, a terrible sign.
He said they had to take off his air pack and his firefighter gear in order to carry him to the window, where he was taken down the ladder by Peterson. He died at the then-Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Bellows Falls.
Morris said he also was taken to the hospital to be checked out and he said the cries of Fuller’s family was something he will never forget.
Brown was rescued later, by Walpole, N.H., firefighters, and former Bellows Falls firefighter Wade Masure, then 19, remembers being on the ladder when Brown was brought out of the burning building.
The hotel collapsed, “pancaked,” shortly afterward.
Debriefing is now accepted procedure for emergency responders, Clark, the safety officer said, but not so back in 1981.
“That really wasn’t developed at that point in time,” he said. “It wasn’t part of the culture.”
Debriefing and stress management came later, he said.
Bellows Falls Village President Deborah Wright was living in Keene, N.H., with her husband at the time of the fire, and she said the film was a revelation to her.
“I learned a lot about the people I live with in this community,” Wright said. “It made my community even more heroic and I appreciate it more,” she said. “There are heroes all around.”