BECKET — Amid the faintest of snow flurries and falling temperatures, firefighters continued Tuesday afternoon to snuff smoldering embers of a theater at a sacred heart of the dance world.
Investigators from the state Department of Fire Services looked on, waiting for the charred wreckage to cool so they could begin to search for the origin of the blaze that took out the Doris Duke Theatre, one of two indoor stages at Jacob’s Pillow.
The fire erupted before 7 a.m. and soon engulfed the theater on the sprawling grounds off George Carter Road, reducing the 30-year-old building to a charred husk. The loss devastated a loyal Berkshires community and a dance world already beset by deep losses from the coronavirus lockdowns.
When Becket firefighters arrived, the blaze already had taken hold of one side of the 230-seat theater. As the flames engulfed the rest of the wooden structure, firefighters said it sounded like a tornado had ripped though.
“It had a high pitch,” said Mark Hanford, a retired Becket firefighter and former fire chief.
Up to 30 firefighters worked at the peak of the blaze. As of noon, fire companies from Becket, Monterey, Otis, Hinsdale and Lee still labored at the scene, having called in an excavator to stir the remains to put out hot spots. And the Chester department was on call for Becket’s station.
Initially, none of the hydrants worked, according to Becket Fire Chief Paul Mikaniewicz. Becket crews began by shuttling water, something they typically do in the town, which has few hydrants.
Hanford said an underground pump that pushes water from a small pond to the Pillow’s hydrants and sprinklers had failed, and so crews drafted water directly from the pond.
“We’re still trying to understand why [it failed],” he said.
Late morning, a firefighter was seen climbing through a hatch to service the pump.
By afternoon, crews had one hydrant working; the hydrants are not town property. Hanford said he saw at least three on the campus. He also said the pond and pump had been installed years ago as the Pillow added more buildings and had to meet fire code.
When asked if working hydrants and a pump would have made a difference in containing the fire, he couldn’t say.
“That’s a hard call,” Hanford said. “There are so many things that could have gone right and so many that could have gone wrong. Let me put it this way: Water’s a big help.”
Mikaniewicz and two state fire investigators said it was too early to tell what might have caused the fire.
As of late afternoon, the investigators, who also are working with local authorities, had not yet identified a cause, said Jennifer Mieth, public information officer with the Department of Fire Services.
Firefighters were able to save a sign from the building that said “Doris Duke Theatre.”
Nothing else was left.
Yet, no one was injured, noted Christopher Jones, president of the Pillow’s board of trustees, who stood near the smoking remains after meeting with board members.
“That’s what was most important,” he said.
Bob Healey, a Becket firefighter for 20 years, said the previous large structure fire in town was at the YMCA dining hall. He said it was a relief that the theater fire hadn’t spread, no one got hurt and the weather cooperated.
“At least this is one building,” he said. “It’s spitting a few snowflakes, but at least it’s not that bad out.”
Crews rotated, gathering at a picnic table to sip coffee and eat doughnuts.
The Pillow is a world-renowned and beloved center of dance, performance, choreography and education, founded by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn in 1933.
While it was shut for the 2020 season during the coronavirus pandemic, it remained a refuge for dancers and choreographers who were able to work in safe pods and stay on campus, said Pamela Tatge, artistic and executive director of the Pillow, who stood outside Tuesday as crews worked.
A small company that had come here from New York City, as part of the Pillow Lab Dance Residency Program, had been working in the theater as recently as Monday, she said.
The news rattled the dance world, which pledged its support of an organization that nurtures and feeds creativity.
Michael Novak, artistic director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, said the loss is “painful” to artists already crushed by the pandemic. The company has performed here since 1964.
He said the place is “one of the spiritual centers of the field,” having been “one of the points of origin of modern dance history in America since the early 1930s.”
“It’s the genesis of the icons and the founders,” he said. “Dancers of all genres ... have found refuge to perform, to create, to study, to take risks. It’s one of the hearts of the industry.”
In a statement, Tatge said the Pillow community is “heartbroken” but said memories remain, and she declared that the theater will be rebuilt.
She also expressed gratitude to firefighters and other responders, and for “the outpouring of support from around the world.”