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Fire Consumes Paramount Hotel

PARKSVILLE: Starting in the kitchen and racing through the main buildings, fire ravaged the Paramount Best Western, sending guests into the night.

Barbara Gref
The Times Herald-Record
[email protected]
October 16, 2000

The 96-year-old Paramount Hotel survived the demise of the Borscht Belt, but yesterday an early-morning fire devoured the landmark.

In what was termed a minor miracle by those on the site of the 3 a.m. blaze, 250 guests – most of them elderly and some partly disabled – were roused from their rooms and evacuated by bus from the mountainside resort, all without injury.

The hotel's core buildings, including a two-story office and lobby, plus the kitchen, dining rooms and meeting rooms, were wiped out. The fire is said to have started in the kitchen and destroyed more than two-thirds of the place.

Hundreds of firefighters from 16 fire companies worked the blaze for more than 12 hours, staying on into the afternoon while excavators removed collapsed wreckage to prevent a rekindle.

Many of the 186 rooms that branched out from the main building were saved, but smoke and water damaged those, too.

Once one of 30 hotels in Parksville, the Paramount survived by adapting. Several years ago, it was renovated and became part of the Best Western franchise.

The fire, said Fran Greenberg "was like a nightmare. "

Greenberg, who was at the night desk, took the first call: "Smoke in the kitchen." She called 911 and then called again.

The fire trucks were on their way and a "mass of smoke was in the lobby – choking me," she said. Putting a wet towel over her face, she wakened others, including Fred Gasthalter, whose father and grandfather had run the old Borscht Belt-style hotel for years. He was now the owner and awoke to see the place aflame.

Staffers and firefighters ran from door to door and outside, and knocked on windows to get the guests out. By 3:45 a.m. hundreds of guests hit the night air, some dressed only in night gowns.

Among the guests was a group of Orthodox Jews who had stayed for an extra day after the Sukkot holiday, and a number of bow hunters. But most were from Elderhostel senior citizens' tours. Based in Boston, Elderhostel had sent 198 guests to the Paramount for four educational programs.

"You could not believe it," Colleen Freitas, the hotel bookkeeper, said shaking from her pre-dawn work. "Some of the people had walkers and canes, but no one panicked, everyone was wonderful."

Stuart Heller of Liberty threw his clothes on at 4 a.m. when he heard the place was going up in flames. His dad had delivered milk there in the '30s in a horse and wagon.

Still in his bedroom slippers, Heller wanted to be here for his friend, Gasthalter.

General Manager Bella Farquhar vowed to rebuild and reopen.

"We're one family," said Farquhar, "and this is our second home."

Mid-morning, Gasthalter and Farquhar put on the outfits of firemen boots, helmets, jackets, suspenders – to re-enter the hotel and grab what they could, safely.

They emerged with a batch of files and a single drawer pulled out of a desk. In it were soot and ashes covering papers and mementos.

Gasthalter did not want to talk.

"This is hard for him," said his friend, Heller.