Barefoot in the park(ing lot)


The old adage claims, “That which does not kill me only makes me stronger.” For me, I say, “That which does not kill me gives me fodder for my next column.” So be it.

Earlier this month, Denise and I accompanied my sister-in-law, Diane, to a conference in Burlington, Vt. We were put up in the Hotel Vermont, on the fourth floor of a six-floor building. We knew this was a great place to stay, having done the same thing last August.

Day one was a do-nothing day, since the ride took nearly five hours (thanks to Boston). Then again, every day there was a do-nothing day for Denise and me, since we had no responsibilities there, unlike our hostess. We arrived around dinner time, settled into our room and ordered delivery while unwinding from sitting down for the last several hours. For those who travel, you get this.

Day two proved to be a bit more interesting. Diane had some conference stuff to attend to in the morning and when she returned, we went out to a nice restaurant sitting but yards from the magnificent Lake Chaplain. One of our primary goals was to get a platter of poutine, a French-Canadian delicacy; and much like most French-Canadian eats, it was far from health food — consisting of French Fries and melted cheese curds smothered in gravy. We got two large plates to share, and we did order one with vegetable gravy, thus allowing ourselves to feel only half guilty for the indulgences.

After a nice day by the lake, we headed back to our home base where Diane got ready for a dinner with a client that evening. Again, Denise and I hunkered down, ordered out and rested from our taxing day of eating and sitting around.

About 8:30 we decided to call it a day and watch some television and flake out. No sooner had we done this when we were shaken to the core by blaring alarms. At first I thought it was just our room and immediately thought, “What could I have done to set off the alarms?” But I sensed ours wasn’t the only room with the ear-piercing blasts. I quickly looked out the window and saw the street filled with smoke — and people outside looking up toward where we were situated.

Then we started to smell the smoke, and it was acrid. I said to Denise, “We have to get out of here, now!” She told me to grab the room key and we both scooped up our phones (go figure) and made our way into the hall, where the smell of the smoke worsened.

We headed for the stairway along with other guests who had the same look of concern on their faces as we did, but there was no panic.

It should be noted that Denise has MS so she has to take her time on stairways. It was a bit unnerving for both of us as we watched others race past us on the way down. Denise would periodically step aside to let others go by.

The smoke smell was worsening and it was then when I started to truly wonder what we were heading into. At the second floor I reached out and touched the door praying it wasn’t hot. It wasn’t. “At least,” I thought, “we weren’t heading into trouble.” It should also be noted that leaving the room so quickly, we didn’t have shoes on.

As Denise later put it, “We were one of the first to reach the stairs, and the last ones out the building.” Once outside we were quickly ushered from the building by the staff of a nearby restaurant, telling us, “move, the fire is right above us.” We moved.

Once in the street, the smoke was starting to billow out of hotel roof and I could detect a glow on the roof in the waning moments of daylight. That glow became full-fledged flames within seconds. Again we were ushered further away, this time by the Burlington PD who told us the smoke was toxic.

In all nearly 200 of us watched the flames on the roof from a safe distance in a parking lot across the street. The Burlington Fire Department was there in no time and knocked the flames down within a half hour. It turns out that a pizza oven in a restaurant on the first floor of the hotel (not part of the hotel), directly below our room, ignited a fire in the vent system and flames traveled through the vent and up to the roof where they literally spewed out onto the roof.

Fortunately it was a mild evening because the parking lot was to be our home for the next four-plus hours. The Marriott Hotel next door did provide a ballroom for us to go and sit and have water and snacks, but Denise and I felt awkward being shoeless and in T-shirts and shorts. 

As soon as we got out, I called Diane. She, knowing I never call her, answered and asked hesitantly, “Is everything OK?” I said, “Nope, the hotel is on fire, we’ve all been evacuated.” Her hesitancy became surprise. “What?” she shouted. “I’ll be there in a few.” I texted pictures to her to prove I hadn’t lost it.

A few minutes later Diane arrived thanks to her client and we watched the surreal scene unfold before us.

As I mentioned the fire was quickly knocked down, but the post-fire protocol of searching for hot spots and maintenance continued. And the FD went into each room to open the windows to vent the building.


When we first evacuated the hotel and I saw the flames I thought to myself, “We are not going back in there tonight.” But slowly word came to us that most of the guests would be allowed back in, but it would be hours. The rooms directly below the fire, one on each floor from six to three, were not inhabitable. We were four rooms from them and two floors from the fire.

Again, as I mentioned, it was a mild evening so we stayed outside, but unbeknown to me, my feet were being attacked by mosquitoes. Allow me to digress here (you knew it was coming). I am mosquito bait. Ten people could be outside and only one would be bitten — me. No one else around me was chomped upon.

Once I started to feel the itch, I told Denise we should go into the Marriott, despite our lack of footwear. We did, and we were given blankets and water and made as comfortable as possible. I should have asked for calamine lotion as well.

At 1 a.m. we were finally allowed to return to our room, which was quite surprisingly not smokey-smelling at all. It took a while for us to settle down after the episode, but we eventually fell asleep. The hotel offered a free breakfast the next morning, but we all slept in and missed it.

While it was happening, especially the evacuation and the not knowing the extent of the danger, it was quite nerve-racking. But everyone kept their cool when things got hot.

I have nothing but praise for the women and men of the Burlington Fire Department on the scene and I sent them a Facebook message the next day letting them know. Kudos also to the PD and the hotel staff and the kind folks from the next-door Marriott.

Aside from my mosquito bites and the three days of itching that followed, no one was hurt and the displaced guests were relocated.

Looking back, it was an experience and left us with a story to tell and a column to write. But if I never go through it again, it will be too soon.

The next night we were shuttled to a dinner at the beautiful Shelburne Farms. While boarding the bus to return, the driver asked us all which hotel we were going back to. I told him, “I’m going to the hottest spot in town, the Hotel Vermont,” evoking chuckles from those within earshot. That which does not kill me …

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