The Coldest Fire

“It was so cold, the hoses were spittin’ ice cubes”

By Chris Harris

Depending on who you talk to, it was anywhere from 28 to 38 degrees below zero on the Sunday morning of January 26, 1962 when the call came in that Podlenski’s barn, across from the present-day fire station, was on fire.

“When I went out my back door, I looked at the thermometer and it was 28 below zero there, protected,” says David Quinn, Sr. “We didn’t have any turn-out gear. Nobody did in those days. You wore what you had. I had on my hunting pants, boots, my hunting jacket and hat. Of course, once you got there, you didn’t need anything to keep warm.

“That’s what we used to call an ‘Oh, shit’ fire because when you go out the driveway and you head up the street and see smoke billowing up there, you say to yourself, ‘oh, shit.’”

“Juni (Chief Floyd M. Dunnell, Jr.) grabbed the Maxim and I grabbed the Buffalo,” continued Quinn, Sr. “The barn set from west to east and there was an entrance on the Main Street end where they took the hay in up at the top, and all the towers, or cow stalls, were down in the bottom. At the entrance into the barn, there was a milk house. There was fire in the milk house and Juni said to me, ‘I’ll get the water going; see if you can cut that off before it gets into the barn.’ There was just the two of us at that particular moment.

“He and I grabbed the ladder and threw it up against the barn to I could get up and spray in there. I’m up on the ladder with the hose and the water was just about coming when all of a sudden I hear ‘howl-owl-oom!’ The fire had exploded the whole length of the barn upstairs and we had fire everywhere. I backed off the ladder and was trying to get a hose in there while others were trying to get the cows out.”

Life member Paul Carpenter helped Juni Dunnell get the cattle out. “Juni and I went in there and after a while we got the cattle all out and all of a sudden the cattle come right back in. We were getting squashed in there. Juni said, ‘Let’s get out of here!’ so we crawled out on the tops of the cattle to get out.”

“That was a big sorrow fire,” says life member Marvin Holloway, “to see the cows coming out burning. It kind of really turns you. And then somebody comes out and starts shooting them right out there in the yard.”

Ethel Doolittle was about 12 at that time. “We could smell the burning animals all the way over into Vernon.”

Then it really started getting dangerous. “I’m standing there and all of a sudden I hear ‘zzz-zz-bing!’” recalls David Quinn, Sr. “And I looked up and there were slates coming off the roof! We didn’t have any helmets or any protective gear for our heads back then, so we had to get out of there.”

Greenfield, Hinsdale, Bernardston and Vernon all responded with mutual aid. Walter Anson came up with Greenfield. “By the time they drove the truck up here, the little bit of water that was in that pump froze solid enough that the truck wouldn’t rotate. A fellow from Greenfield found a big hunk of tin in the woods and routed the exhaust from the truck to underneath the pump to melt the pump, and then they could pump water.

“Every so many minutes you rotated back into the station house because we didn’t have the protective gear they do now,” says Anson, then a member of the Greenfield Fire Department. “You had a rubber raincoat and rubber boots.”

Says Ed Doolittle, “They had to take hot water to open up the snaps on your raincoat and you could stand it right up because they were froze solid.”

“We were pumping water from the brook on School Street,” recalls Ted Powell, “and we had to stop because ice had formed in the hoses. We couldn’t understand why we weren’t getting any water. We took them apart and there was a hole the diameter of a straw that the water could go through. The rest was ice.”

At the end of the day, they had to load their frozen hoses on a flatbed trailer and deliver them to the Vernon Fire Station, which wasn’t completed at that time. “They had a dirt floor,” recalls Ed Doolittle, “and we could lay our fire hose in there until they thawed out.”

David Quinn, Jr. was about ten years old at the time. “I remember my mother telling me I shouldn’t go up there, and I proceeded to put my boots and snowpants and snow gear on and trotted up Main Street to watch the fire. My father was a pump operator on a truck. Watching him made me feel like that was probably one of the most important things I ever wanted to do in my life.”