The day the old Bermudiana died

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Our spotlight on Bermuda’s hotel heritage continues here with a look at the Bermudiana Hotel which was torn down in the 1990s.

During the heyday of Bermuda tourism it was one of our most popular hotels. It was built in 1924 by the Furness-Withy shipping line and was the first hotel built in Bermuda after the First World War.

It was designed by the American firm Warren & Wetmore which also designed Grand Central Terminal and the Biltmore and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in New York City.

The hotel was known for its lush 15 acres of grounds, swimming pool and grand ballroom, although the original hotel had quite a boxy modern design which shocked Bermuda at the time.

An advertisement from the 1930s billed it as the “centre of social activity in Bermuda” and bragged about its “fireproof construction”.

Unfortunately, this was later proved woefully untrue.

One of the worst hotel fires in Bermuda’s history began with a small whiff of smoke coming from under the eaves of the top floor of the Bermudiana on September 4, 1958.

That afternoon Patricia Dooley (now Fortenbaugh), 15, was swimming in the hotel pool.

She had her first job but was off because it was a Thursday afternoon, a time when most businesses closed in Bermuda.

Her father, Carroll Dooley, was the general manager of the hotel which, at that time, had around 450 guests.

“I saw the smoke and since we were living in the hotel at the time, went up to our apartment to check things out,” said Mrs Fortenbaugh. “We started throwing things out the window pretty quickly and I remember that the walls of the closet were very hot.”

All manner of things were thrown from the windows guests’ personal belongings and furniture.

A dentist had an office in the building; a dentist’s chair and boxes of false teeth flew out of that window. The lawn of the hotel was compared to a refugee camp, with items scattered and piled everywhere.

One of the hotel managers first discovered a small blaze in a room on the sixth floor at 4.30pm.

He tried to use a fire extinguisher but it didn’t work. He found another one but that didn’t work much better.

Unable to put out the fire, he called the fire brigade around 5pm and hotel staff started knocking on guests’ doors to get them to evacuate.

Today, a fire alarm and sprinklers would go off. Not so in 1958. The fire got into partitions between the walls and travelled from one room to another.

At first it appeared to be moving very slowly from the East to the West side of the building. Guests came into the hotel to pack.

Tea and sandwiches were served in the lobby and the bar remained open for some time. One guest even swam in the pool while the fire burned.

When the bar finally closed to guests, bartenders calmly packed up large boxes of cigarettes.

Everyone seemed resigned to the fact that the hotel would burn to the ground, but there was no sense of urgency to leave.

Bermuda’s fire department at the time was entirely volunteer. Some firemen arrived from the beach dressed in bathing suits.

There was no breathing apparatus or protective fire gear or city fire hydrants in those days. Maids wet down towels for the firemen to wrap around their faces.

Fire fighting equipment consisted mostly of two cranes, ladders and fire hoses for several hours they struggled to achieve the water pressure needed to put out the fire.

“[The hotel] was supposed to be painted with a fire retardant paint,” said Charles Harris, one of the volunteer firemen that day. “It certainly wasn’t. It was a strange fire and it burned very quickly.”

An eyewitness account in the newspaper the next day told how the reporter went into the hotel to get a great story, and instead found himself helping guests to pack.

He wrote: “Advice seemed called for in some cases.

“Some visitors dazed and incomprehending, were doing a neat job of hotel packing into suitcases, carefully folding clothes and clearing drawers while around them hot yellow-stained water was steadily dripping and from a drip, trickling and running through the cracks which appeared in the ceiling. The ceiling would clearly collapse at any moment.”

Somewhat desperately the journalist had the brilliant suggestion that the guests just wrap everything in a bedspread.

As they were stumbling down a pitch black metal stair with floods of water running down it, a woman suddenly declared that she had left her son behind.

The journalist pictured an infant helpless in his crib and wondered, ‘how heroic is a reporter supposed to get?’.

This exchange with the mother, detailed in the article, ensued:

“How old is he?”

“Seventeen”

“Oh surely he can take care of himself.”

“That’s just it. He took off with the firemen.”

The reporter ate sandwiches in the lobby while the hotel burned around him. In his article, he described the sandwiches as “a little dry, and a bit smoky”.

Meanwhile, crowds of people gathered outside. Some of them tried to help by bringing sandwiches and drinks to the firemen.

Some men even joined the volunteer fire service in attempting extinguish the fire. Other onlookers were less than helpful.

The curious crowd grew so unmanageable that the Bermuda Militia was called in to control it. The scene became Bermuda’s first experience with live, on-the-spot television reporting.

The newly established ZBM studios were just across the street from the Bermudiana.

One of the journalists stuck a camera out of the window and filmed the inferno. Those lucky enough to have television sets in 1958 were glued to their sets.

All of Bermuda had come to a standstill while the hotel burned. One young policeman, the late Derek Fletcher, left his bride standing at the altar for over an hour while he helped.

“The fire went on for a very long time and the next day there was not much left, and a great deal of debris on the property,” Mrs Fortenbaugh remembered.

The hotel burned to the ground. An electrical fault in the air conditioning system was later named as the cause of the blaze.

The fire spurned major changes to Bermuda’s firefighting system a professional service was formed for the first time.

The hotel was rebuilt within a year, some would say it was rebuilt too quickly.

Mel Dillas, who is currently the Maître d’ at Cambridge Beaches worked at the Bermudiana during its second incarnation.

“I remember it burning down,” he said, “I was a little kid. I left there in 1988. It wasn’t a good thing they built it so quickly, because they always had plumbing problems and things like that.”

Jean Astwood also worked at the Bermudiana in the 1980s, remembered that the hotel had been a haven for visiting college students on their spring breaks.

“I started working there probably from 1980 to 1982, but I was also a guest in 1972 and stayed there when I was in college,” she said. “I am originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“I remember I paid $299 for a week’s stay at the Bermudiana with breakfast and dinner and airfare included. There were a lot of college kids.

“Some of the rooms would have six girls to a room. They were pretty strict about who stayed where. Guys and girls were housed on different floors.”

In later years the hotel fell into a dilapidated state and was knocked down.

In December 1993 the property was sold for $14.5 million to become “the Wall Street of Bermuda”. The Ace and XL buildings now occupy the site.

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Published May 17, 2012 at 8:30 am (Updated May 17, 2012 at 8:30 am)

The day the old Bermudiana died

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