Ski lodge "went up like a Roman candle"

FARMINGTON — “There was just no escaping it. When it popped, it
went up like a Roman candle, and then we were consumed in black
smoke.”

Farmington Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Steve VanSickle used
those words to describe the moment when the Sundial Lodge at
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort exploded in flames Sunday night,
shooting a fireball into the night sky that was visible for more
than 30 miles.

“When we got to it after the initial call, there was heavy smoke
coming from the rear of the structure,” VanSickle said. “Within
minutes, it went up and then we were done.”

Brian VanSickle, Steve’s brother and Farmington’s fire chief,
said he was immediately concerned when he arrived at the ski lodge
around 8 p.m.

“When we pulled in and I saw it — like it was black smoke
everywhere — I knew we were beaten,” Brian VanSickle said. “It is
a hard thing as a firefighter to admit defeat but I knew we
couldn’t stop it. We pride ourselves on stopping blazes but this
one had beaten us before we even got to it. I’m just thankful that
the employees were out and safe and no one was hurt.”

According to Steve VanSickle, firefighters dumped an estimated
100,000 gallons of water on the inferno as they worked to contain
the flames from spreading to nearby greenhouses and the resort’s
outdoor activities center throughout the night.

Brian VanSickle said firefighters were not immediately able to
tap into fire hydrants because they had frozen.

“It was cold, in the single digits. And it was very windy,”
Brian VanSickle said.

He said that fire crews improvised and started drawing water
from standing reserves held by the National Pike Water Authority
nearby.

“At one point, we had as many as 14 tanker trucks running on a
loop to get water to the scene,” Brian VanSickle said. “It was a
huge operation.”

Initially, firefighters ran hose lines through a large breezeway
under the lodge to try and douse the flames from the rear of the
building but, within minutes, Brian VanSicke ordered the
firefighters to retreat. Moments later, the explosion of fire
rocked the wooden building, forcing firefighters to abandon their
hoses and move trucks and other equipment away from the
building.

“We had a truck parked right in front and had hose lines running
from it,” Farmington firefighter Rick Hager said. “When the
building went, we had to use an ax and cut the lines and get the
truck out of there. The blast blew out the windshield of a Hopwood
fire truck parked farther away. We saved our truck but lost the
hose lines. Honestly, it was the worst fire I have been involved
with in my 37 years of fighting fires.”

Brian VanSickle said his department lost about 1,400 feet of
hose line as a result of the fire.

As firefighters continued to pummel the blaze with as much water
as there was available, snow machines continued to spray fresh
powder on the Mystic Mountain slopes and the chair lift continued
to run.

Brian VanSickle said his department remained on scene until
about 2:30 a.m. when they determined the fire was contained.

“We had 15 fire departments on scene, including volunteer
firefighters from departments in Westmoreland and Somerset counties
and one department from West Virginia,” Brian VanSickle said.

After working on a pumper truck near the building for several
hours, Steve VanSickle said his lungs had “had enough” and was
taken to Uniontown Hospital by ambulance for treatment of smoke
inhalation.

“My blood pressure was bad and they were worried I was going to
have a stroke,” he said Monday as he leaned against his pickup and
watched the still-burning rubble waft wispy smoke into the frigid
air. “I didn’t just get a few breaths of carbon monoxide, I got a
few lungfulls.”

Brian VanSickle said his brother wasn’t the only volunteer
treated for smoke inhalation as a result of the blaze, noting that
volunteer firefighters from Hopwood and Markleysburg also were
taken to area hospitals for treatment and several other
firefighters were treated by emergency personnel at the scene.

He noted that while the cause of the blaze remains under
investigation by state police fire marshal Trooper William Large,
the actual cause never may be determined because of the extent of
the damage to the building. However, he said officials do not
suspect foul play.

Heather Kutek, who has worked as a bartender at the Hitchin’
Post Saloon inside the lodge for eight years, walked around the
charred rubble in shock on Monday.

“I wasn’t working last night but we had closed at 6 p.m. and
there were only four employees here when it started,” Kutek said.
“It is just crazy to see this. I can’t believe it is gone.”

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