ONEONTA _ Today marks the fourth anniversary of a massive blaze and explosion that consumed two downtown buildings 16 years ago.
The leap year fire of Feb. 29, 1992, injured seven firefighters, destroyed three businesses, and displaced 40 people, some permanently. No lives were lost.
The raging inferno was declared arson but is a cold case.
The fire that began in the Dark Horse Saloon on Market Street and spread to the J.J. Maloney Co. building next door remains fresh in the minds of some whose lives were touched by the flames.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," said city police Chief Joseph Redmond, who was then a sergeant.
The fire on the bitterly cold morning was reported by someone running into the Public Safety Building at about 5:25 a.m. as he and other officers were doing paperwork, Redmond recalled.
"I was the first one on the scene," Redmond said. "I stopped the car and I could see smoke coming from between the two buildings."
Redmond's patrol car was directly in front of the saloon in the eastbound lane and through his rearview mirror he saw the fire department door start to open. He said he knew he had to make way for the fire truck.
"I drove down a little bit further and made a U-turn and came back up on the other side," Redmond said.
The Dark Horse had closed for the night, but two employees had gone back to the business to pick up a car. One of them was standing in front of the windows in the front.
Redmond opened his car door to yell at the man to get out of the way.
"I heard the sucking from the back draft and the building exploded," Redmond said.
A fireball came out of the front of the Dark Horse, showering the street with debris.
"I floored it," Redmond said.
The man whom Redmond yelled at had moved away from the windows just in time, he said.
Redmond was joined by four Oneonta firefighters, who first worked on getting people out of apartments in nearby buildings, including above the J.J. Maloney Co. As reinforcements arrived first from the Oneonta Fire Department and, later, from 25 departments in the surrounding countryside, the focus shifted to preventing the spread of the fire to other buildings. Eventually, about 200 firefighters were on the scene.
Photographer Julie Lewis caught the ensuing battle against the flames through her camera lens. A fellow Daily Star employee called her at home after hearing about the explosion on a police scanner.
The photos she took that morning earned her a New York Associated Press photo essay award.
"It's not pleasant to win an award for a tragic event," Lewis said. "Thank God no one was killed."
Lewis estimates she was on the scene about 15 minutes after it was first reported.
"It was surreal. It was like something out of a movie scene," Lewis said.
Documenting the blaze and its aftermath was among the most memorable assignments in a Daily Star career that has spanned nearly 27 years, Lewis said.
But among the things she remembers most about that morning was the way the community pulled together to help the victims and emergency workers with hot beverages, food and warm places to get out of the weather. The effort of the firefighters was also remarkable, she said.
"They had to save the whole rest of the street and they did," Lewis said. "It was absolutely heroic."
There was no saving the Dark Horse Saloon and J.J. Maloney buildings.
Attorney and Otsego County Public Defender Richard "Otto" Rothermel owned the Dark Horse building, which also housed his office. The saloon was owned by John Purcell.
When he first found out about the fire, Rothermel and his family were getting ready to drive to New Hampshire to visit relatives.
"I figured somebody threw a cigarette in the wastebasket," he said.
But as he came to the former CVS Pharmacy on Chestnut Street, he could see flames shooting above the nearby buildings.
"I knew it was not a good thing," Rothermel said.
The temperature that morning was near 10 below zero and did not rise much higher than that as firefighters and their equipment quickly became encrusted with ice.
"It was just a miserable time for them, and they were great," Rothermel said.
For the rest of the morning, he watched the building and his business turn into a pile of rubble and ash. The fire was brought under control by about 10:30 a.m.
Firefighters managed to pull two file cabinets and a safe from the Dark Horse building. Twenty-two cabinets were lost in the blaze.
"We saved about 50,000 pieces of paper in two file cabinets," Rothermel said.
But there were no serious injuries.
"There is no question it could have been much, much worse," Rothermel said.
Lisa and John Maloney of Otego were the proprietors of the tobacco and candy business J.J. Maloney Co.
"We both lost our job," Lisa Maloney said.
The couple rebuilt the business in another location but went out of business two years later.
"We think of it all the time," Maloney said.
Purcell did not return a call for comment, but he is listed in records with the state Liquor Authority as the owner of The Alley and Today's Lounge.
There were some blessings for the property owners. Because the buildings burned down before March 1, the owners were not liable for that year's property-tax bill.
Over the next few days, the displaced apartment dwellers tried to salvage what they could, which wasn't much.
"It was really sad to watch them pick through their belongings," Lewis said.
Some of the apartment dwellers were musicians who lost recordings and instruments, as well as other personal items.
One of these was Wayne Carrington, who had been in Buffalo with his band, Subduing Mara, the night before the fire.
"I was pretty young back then, and I didn't have insurance," said Carrington, 37, who is now married and raising a family in Oneonta. "It definitely made me more mindful of protecting what you have."
The fire's cause
and the investigation
The raging fire was determined to have started when someone splashed accelerant on the dance floor of the Dark Horse sometime between when the bar became empty at 4:15 a.m. and when the blaze was reported by an employee at 5:27 a.m.
H. Karl Chandler, a former state police investigator involved in the case, said he still has no doubt that someone targeted the Dark Horse Saloon that morning.
"I know that somebody burned the damn place down and somebody had a reason," said Chandler, who is now retired.
Suspects and a motive were identified but there was never enough evidence to prosecute, Chandler said. He declined to name any individual suspects or reveal the motive.
With no eyewitness, the investigation was taken as far as it could go, Chandler said.
It is likely too late to prosecute anyone for the fire if stronger evidence were to be uncovered, said Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl, who took office in 2004.
The statute of limitations has passed for all categories of arson except first-degree, and the facts of the case might not support a first-degree arson charge, Muehl said.
First-degree arson is lodged against a suspect when there is serious personal injury in an intentionally set fire or when a suspect sets a fire with the expectation of financial gain.
"It's one of the most difficult crimes to prove," Muehl said.
Evidence is often destroyed in the fire and there are usually competing theories as to the cause, he explained.
was the difference
It was the support of the community and the hard work of his staff that helped get him through the aftermath, Rothermel said.
"The outpouring of support was just unbelievable, and that is one of the great things about living in Oneonta," Rothermel said.
In the weeks after the fire, a benefit concert at The Copper Fox was held to raise money for the victims, and other community efforts were launched to help the fire victims.
"Oneonta is definitely good in a tough spot," Carrington said.
Rothermel said he immediately began planning for the future.
"If you're going back into business, you don't sit there and wallow in pity," Rothermel said. "The day of the fire, we had office space secured and computers lined up."
For the first four months after the fire, Rothermel said he and his staff put in long hours and could not take any new cases.
A year and a half after the blaze, the fire was still a "major distraction," Rothermel said.
Even to this day, Rothermel's office gets requests for records that were lost in the blaze.
He said he will be going out tonight to mark the occasion with his staff.
"They were the ones who got us through it all," Rothermel said.
Now when someone else has a fire, he said, you just know what they are going through.