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Family searching for details of deadly 1977 hotel fire

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Hotel fire victim Dorothy Joyce, third from left, surrounded by her grandchildren shortly before her death in 1977 (Photograph supplied)

An American family are looking for more information on a fire at the Southampton Princess that killed two family members 46 years ago.

George Stock from Ambler, Pennsylvania, lost his grandmother, Dorothy Joyce, and great-uncle, George Alton Gandy, in a fire at the hotel on December 1, 1977. His parents, Peggy and Blaine Stock, and uncle and aunt, Philip and Barbara Baur, survived.

“My two kids are getting to an age where they are dating and getting married,” Mr Stock said. “They are asking questions about their family and lineage. We started to tell them this story of the fire and then thought why don’t we go on the internet and find out more information about it.”

Dorothy Joyce in Bermuda shortly before her death in the Southampton Princess fire on December 1, 1977 (Photograph supplied)

He contacted this newspaper after coming across a 2021 interview in The Royal Gazette with Reginald Rawlins, who was the first fireman on the scene.

He would like to hear from others who were there that night, or have footage of the fire.

His 88-year-old mother remembers the tragedy, vividly.

The family was here for a five-day trip to celebrate the Baurs’ 25th wedding anniversary.

“We only had a day or two left to go before going home,” she said. “I remember we took the ferry that day.”

They were all familiar with Bermuda.

“I first came in 1965 for College Weeks,” she said. “It had been a long time since my mother and uncle had been to Bermuda.”

But on this occasion Bermuda was hit by unrest surrounding the impending hangings of Erskine “Buck” Burrows and Larry Tacklyn. The men had been convicted of five killings, including the 1973 assassination of the Governor, Sir Richard Sharples, and his aide-de-camp, Captain Hugh Sayers.

“We didn’t notice any of that when we were travelling around the island,” Mrs Stock said. “People seemed just as friendly as ever.”

Stock family: George Stock Sr, , front row left, wife Christina, mother Peggy and daughter Deanna. Back row, from left: son George Jr and brother Bruce (Photograph supplied)

On December 1 they awoke to a fire alarm at the hotel.

“We put our shoes on and got dressed,” Mrs Stock said. “My husband opened the door and saw smoke and immediately shut the door. We went on our balcony with my sister and brother-in-law. Very shortly after we could not see in our room because of the smoke.”

The Stocks were on the sixth floor on the side of the building facing Gibbs Hill Lighthouse. There was a very steep drop away.

“The fire department in Bermuda did not have ladders that went up that high,” Mrs Stock said.

She and her family spent hours huddled there.

“We really thought it was the end for us,” she said. “When we couldn’t see in the room due to the smoke, it was rather scary. My husband was just ripping up sheets to lower us over the side, when a fireman finally appeared.”

There were burning embers in the hallway as they were finally led to a fire escape and safety.

“The air was much clearer in the lobby,” she said. “That is where everyone was gathered.”

Looking around they could not find Mrs Joyce and Mr Gandy. Their rooms were on the second floor, which was relatively safe from the fire.

“My brother-in-law and other people tried to go up to their room to find them, but they were not there,” Mrs Stock said.

The pair had got into the elevator instead of taking the stairs. The heat had sucked the elevator directly to the sixth floor – the scene of the fire.

“They were found just outside of the elevator,” Mrs Stock said. “We had to get dental records to make sure it was them. Then they were flown home. There was not much left of them at that point.”

Mrs Joyce was 73, and Mr Gandy was 61. Hotel engineer Gladwin Ingham also died in the fire.

When the Stock family were able to return to their hotel rooms they found that their jewellery had been stolen.

“My wedding rings had been on the nightstand beside the door,” Mrs Stock said. “I never got them back. My sister’s jewellery was taken also. I guess people were ransacking the rooms while the hotel burnt.”

Back at home, it took time for her to deal with the trauma.

Southampton Princess fire victim George Gandy (Photograph supplied)

“We were a very close family all living together in the same area,” she said. “It was an adjustment. For a while it was about clearing out homes and settling estates.”

They returned to Bermuda twice more to speak at a trial.

“We had to sit outside,” she said. “Then one by one, they called us inside and asked us questions like did we see anything that night. We didn’t. We couldn’t even see the inside of the hotel room.”

It is thought the fire was set because people believed the hangman for Burrows and Tacklyn was staying there that night. Both men were hung the next day at Casemates Prison in Dockyard.

Police constable recalls fire

Dai James, a Southampton constable at that time, was called to the fire at 2am.

“The guests that night were all housed on the north wing,” he said. “The fires were set at different spots along the east-west wing. It was something like five fires.”

He said Mr Ingham ran along the floor banging on doors to get the guests out, not knowing there were no guests on the east west wing.

Mr James said Mr Gandy and Mrs Joyce initially went downstairs, but seemed to have got back into the elevator when they did not see their family in the lobby.

“When the door opened a fireball travelled down the wing and they dropped just as they walked out the door,” he said.

The tragedy did not stop Mrs Stock from returning to Bermuda to visit.

“A few years later some friends said they were going and asked us to go with them,” she said. “It was a little hard to visit again the first time, but after that my husband and I went down with friends, always around Mother’s Day.”

They usually stayed at what is now the Newstead Belmont Hills Golf Resort & Spa in Paget.

“I will not stay in a hotel on the high floors any more,” Mrs Stock said.

She will probably never return to Bermuda because of her health but her son, George, would like to come back.

We planned on going this summer but my son, George Jr, got engaged,“ he said. ”We certainly plan on getting to Bermuda at some point.”

• If you have information to share with the Stock family, e-mail stckfam4@aol.com

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Published February 21, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated February 22, 2023 at 8:03 am)

Family searching for details of deadly 1977 hotel fire

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