Friday December 24, 2010

LENOX -- It was back to work at the Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club Thursday morning, only hours after the luxury resort's 19th century Carriage House was ravaged by fire.

"We're open for business," said Lewis M. Kiesler, Cranwell's president and general manager.

In fact, Cranwell was never closed for business, even as firefighters from more than 20 departments across the region responded to Wednesday's blaze, which remains under investigation.

Federal, state and local authorities remained on scene all day Thursday, interviewing witnesses and beginning the laborious process of examining the charred remains of the historic, 18-room guest house.

Massachusetts Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan, who was at the scene of the fire, said the probe is expected to last through at least next week.

Meanwhile, Kiesler praised firefighters for their tireless efforts and commended Cranwell personnel for going the extra mile during a crisis.

"This morning, people came in and, of course, it was a horrifying site [the burned building].


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And everybody just asked, ‘What can I do?' Everybody has been just fabulous here at the hotel," he said.

Kiesler praised Lenox Fire Chief Daniel Clifford for taking the time to explain things, including what to expect as the investigation progresses.

"The fire departments have just been tremendous," he said. "We really appreciate them."

Other than the Carriage House, nothing else was damaged in the blaze, including the popular spa and mansion. Even Cranwell's gift shop stayed open throughout the ordeal.

"We lost one building," said Kiesler, noting that only 18 of Cranwell's 114 rooms were lost. "We still have 96 rooms left."

Because Cranwell is currently working with its insurance provider, Kiesler said it would be premature to assess the economic loss from the fire.

Coan said it was too soon to rule out anything in terms of what may have sparked the blaze, which was reported shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday and burned well into the night. By Thursday morning, thin plumes of smoke continued to rise from the burnt remains of the once-grand structure, which lay in ruins in the heart of Cranwell's 380-acre campus.

"At this point, it's a wide open investigation," Coan said.

Authorities, including Massachusetts State Police investigators and agents from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, have already conducted extensive interviews with Cranwell staff and first-responders.

"It is an ongoing investigation. There are many tasks before us before we, hopefully, determine a cause of the fire," Coan said.

The second phase of the investigation entails the "actual observation and collection of physical evidence," said Coan.

However, considering the building was extensively damaged and suffered a partial collapse, it creates a somewhat difficult environment for investigators to work in," Coan said.

"Moving forward, we will be bringing in pieces of heavy equipment to de-layer the building so the investigators can observe and view different components of the [burned building] over the next several days," Coan said.

Coan said the investigation is being led by Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Timothy Bombard.

"This was a large fire for southern Berkshire County," Coan said. "The fire departments did a tremendous job in doing what they could do to save property."

Coan said the assistance Lenox received from other county and regional departments highlights the benefits of the so-called mutual aid system.

"It's just another example of the great mutual aid system that exists in Berkshire County," Coan said.

As snow flurries fell on Cranwell Thursday, resort employees tended to their daily duties, UPS trucks made deliveries along Cranwell's snowy lanes, and guests made their way from the spa and gift shop. The one anomalous element to this otherwise business-as-usual atmosphere, however, was the smoldering remains of the Carriage House.

Investigators from the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, which is led by Coan, set up a command post in the parking lot just south of the destroyed building. Several Department of Fire Services vehicles -- including a Special Operations truck and an even larger Incident Support Unit truck -- were among the emergency vehicles on hand to assist with the probe.

Clifford, the fire chief in Lenox, said firefighters weren't immediately able to locate the source of the fire, which appeared to be "hidden in confined spaces." Another concern was securing a main gas line near the fire site, Clifford said.

But there were no reported injuries -- Cranwell staff or firefighters -- and no one was staying in the Carriage House at the time of the fire.

A Cranwell employee, Keith Dixon, who was responsible for daily inspections of the Carriage House, said he reported the fire after noticing flames coming from the ceiling of a linen closet in the building.

Despite the pre-holiday disaster, the mood at Cranwell has been anything but somber. Reservations staff started making calls to those who had booked rooms in the Carriage House. Maintenance and ground crews worked closely with fire personnel. And Cranwell's kitchen staff prepared hot meals for weary, hungry and cold firefighters.

"The spirit is just phenomenal," Kiesler said. "I'm so proud of our staff."

To reach Conor Berry:
cberry@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6249.