As the 40th anniversary of the deadly Holiday Inn fire in Greece approaches — a horrific inferno that claimed 10 lives — the investigation remains stalled because of unusual twists: authorities can't say with certainty how the fire started, and even if it were arson, there have been multiple suspects for the crime.
The stalemate has driven a wedge between the Greece Police Department, which maintains its recent investigation provided enough evidence for a prosecution, and the District Attorney's Office, which says it cannot take a case to the grand jury with more than one feasible suspect and the questions surrounding the origins of the blaze.
Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan insists there is only one true suspect and that the fire was definitely an arson.
"We believe the evidence that already existed and the evidence that evolved was strong enough to present to a grand jury and indict the suspect," he said.
But other investigators are not as sure the November 1978 fire was an arson, or whether it could have been sparked by an errant lighted cigarette then swiftly swelled because of nearby flammable materials and construction.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF, has not been able to rule out an accidental fire at the hotel, said Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley.
Also, she said, the DA's office continued with the investigation submitted in 2015 by the Greece police, and found that multiple suspects had not been ruled out. Now, she said, there are still two viable living suspects.
Police have never named a suspect in public but suspicion has long fallen on former Ridge Road Fire Chief Harold "Bud" Phillips, who was a fire lieutenant in 1978 when he reported the Nov. 26 fire via his in-car radio after spotting flames coming from the two-story hotel while driving by on West Ridge Road.
Phillips, who retired in February, has always maintained his innocence and questioned the police conclusion that the blaze had been deliberately set. In a statement provided to the Democrat and Chronicle earlier this year, Phillips said he would "never apologize" for doing his job as he was trained to do.
But Phillips was not alone as a suspect. Assistant District Attorney Brian Green, who has been investigating the crime for the DA's office for six years, said there were five viable "people of interest" and he and the DA investigators have narrowed it down to two: The one under suspicion by Greece police — known to be Phillips — and another man who had lived in two apartments that burned down mysteriously and who also later told an individual that he did commit arson at the Holiday Inn.
With two possible suspects and uncertainty about whether the fire was purposefully set, prosecutors would be wrong to take the case to a grand jury, Green said. If prosecutors cannot say the fire was arson, Green said, there is no possible murder charge — the only charge with no statute of limitations.
"It's frustrating from our position to not be able to come to a conclusion on a case one way or the other," Green said. "Until we can come to a conclusion on a case we're precluded from going forward legally and under the ethics rules for prosecutors."
Stairways like chimneys
In the wee hours of Nov. 26, 1978, there were more than 200 guests booked in the 91 rooms at the Holiday Inn Northwest on West Ridge Road. Many were tourists from Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario who had come to Rochester for a weekend of Christmas shopping. Two wedding parties were also staying at the hotel, which had also hosted a singles party the evening before.
Shortly before 2:30 a.m., as the guests slept unaware, a blaze started in a first-floor stairwell storage area stuffed with paper goods, toilet paper and towels.
The stairways acted like chimneys, drawing flames upward to the attic space. With the fire doors propped open, flames rushed into the corridors of the west wing and through a passageway into the north wing, fed in part by combustible shopping bags and wrapping guests had left outside their doors. The hallway ceilings ignited; the roof trusses lit.
Inside the corridors, fire rained from above.
Around 2:38 a.m. Phillips, who moonlighted as a security guard at a nearby construction site, has maintained that he drove by the hotel on his way back from an errand at the Post Office. Spotting a tell-tale orange glow behind the structure, he pulled into the parking lot, radioed in the fire and started helping guests who were clambering from their windows to escape.
Another off-duty firefighter on his way home from work at Eastman Kodak Co., former Albion Fire Chief Francis Niedert, arrived seconds later.
"He went in one door, and I went in the other," Phillips told the Democrat and Chronicle in 2013.
In the ensuing minutes, additional reports poured in to the fire line, as others who'd spotted the flames found and used the nearest payphones.
For more than two hours, more than five dozen firefighters from Greece and other area departments battled the blaze. Rescue crews ushered about 170 pajama-clad guests — many barefoot or wearing only slippers — to safety in the blustery 16-degree morning air. A handful of guests escaped by leaping from second- and third-story windows.
A makeshift morgue sprouted in the parking lot.
By the time the fire was finally extinguished, at 4:43 a.m., more than 90 percent of the building's north wing roof and three-quarters of the west wing roof were burned off.
And 10 people were dead: Canadians Marguerrette Duncan, Huguette Raymonde Sundue, Pamela Sagriff; Ruby Cushinan and her daughter, also named Ruby Cushinan, and Mr. and Mrs. Edward Francis Farley; Joyce Alpeter Plumb of Arlington, Virginia; Nancy Garrett of Pompano Beach, Florida; and Stephen Gregory Ford of Ypsilanti, Michigan, who was in town attending his best friend's wedding.
Five of their bodies had been found jammed against a doorway in a third-floor west wing hallway.
The Medical Examiner determined all died from smoke inhalation.
A National Fire Protection Association investigator concluded in 1979 that human error and issues with the hotel's interior finishes, stairwells and alarm systems contributed to the high fatality rate. In particular, fire analyst David P. Demers faulted the "highly combustible, thin plywood paneling" that had been glued to the stairway walls and apparently peeled off as it burned. He also noted that many guests hadn't heard the fire alarm or thought it was an alarm clock or telephone.
He also noted that the building did not comply with fire codes in place at the time, particularly those that required protected stairway openings, emergency lighting and self-closing fire doors, prohibited under-stair storage and required immediate notification of the fire department if there was an alarm.
Combustible interior finishes and unprotected vertical openings were implicated by Demers in two similar fires at Holiday Inns elsewhere in the United States; a 1979 blaze in Cambridge, Ohio, where 10 people were also killed; and a 1981 fire in Kearney, Nebraska, where there were no fatalities. Like the Greece Holiday Inn, both of those hotel structures had been built in the mid-1960s and had been refurbished in the early 1970s. All three buildings lacked self-closing fire doors and features designed to stop the spread of smoke and fire.
Arson or accident?
Immediately after the Holiday Inn burned, then-Greece Police Chief Gerald Phelan, (the father of current Police Chief Patrick Phelan), said there was no evidence the blaze had been intentionally set. The Monroe County fire investigator agreed, saying the cause was most likely accidental.
But, Phelan — who told reporters at the time his gut told him the fire was nonetheless suspicious due to its speed and intensity — then convened a task force that holed up for more than three weeks at a nearby hotel and enlisted aid from pioneering arson investigator John Stickevers, then the New York City fire marshal.
Four days after the blaze, Stickevers concluded the fire was deliberate, and that someone had poured a flammable liquid in the under-stair storage area and set it alight.
"The technical evidence is conclusive," Phelan said at the time.
Reports at the time said that determination was based in part on four observations:
- A wedding party that walked through the passageway where the fire started about 10 minutes prior to Phillips' call to the fire station did not see, hear or smell anything unusual.
- The fire was intense and rapid, with a great deal of low burning at the point of origin.
- Burn patterns on the carpeting outside the storage closet, which investigators said indicated an accelerant had been splashed on the carpet.
- An aluminum kickplate on a door near where the fire started was melted at the bottom, indicating the use of an accelerant.
Evolving fire science in the four decades since the Holiday Inn burned has debunked the value of three of those observations, and the certainty of the arson theory: so-called "pour patterns" can have numerous innocent explanations; arson fires do not burn hotter than accidental fires; and melted metals do not automatically equal the use of an accelerant.
In 2011, then-Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter (now Monroe County Sheriff) dusted off the cold case and convened a new task force to sift through the case files and interview witnesses again. In November 2013, police executed a warrant at the headquarters of the Ridge Road Fire District on Long Pond Road, although they have never said what they were seeking or what, if anything, they found.
Remaining questions of whether the fire was even arson are a high hurdle, prosecutors say.
"The only viable charge would be a felony murder under an arson theory," Doorley said. "If we can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this was an arson, we're going nowhere."
Where many apparent crimes can be tough to solve because of a lack of suspects, the Holiday Inn fire was a different beast: There was a surfeit of suspects, as if a real-life Agatha Christie novel.
According to Assistant District Attorney Green, there were five serious “people of interest” remaining when the DA’s Office received the completed Greece police investigation in 2015. They were:
The individual whom the Greece police suspect. That, again, is Phillips, though Green would not name him.
The still-remaining second suspect, who had a history of losing homes to fires.
- A man whose wife was staying at the Holiday Inn to escape domestic violence. He had learned where she was the day of the fire.
- Another man who went on a spree setting fires at hotels in central New York after the Holiday Inn fire.
- A demolition expert who was at the singles dance the night of the fire and whose statements to investigators prompted some suspicions. He received a contract for the hotel demolition after the fire.
“It’s really impossible to go forward with any one suspect when there are multiple viable suspects,” Green said.
Over nearly 18 months of investigation, Green and investigators winnowed the list to two.
Before that point, the suspect who had set fires at other hotels was, unsurprisingly, an individual whom authorities were keen to meet with. He lived very close to the Holiday Inn, and later set fire to five hotels in central New York.
Police apparently learned about him in 1981, Green said. It’s unclear what investigative steps were taken then, Green said, but it’s now evident that he was not in the Rochester area at the time of the Holiday Inn blaze.
Records from the initial investigation also show that the remaining suspect other than Phillips was known to police in 1978. Within weeks of the fire, police received a call alerting them to the individual.
He had lived in two apartments that had caught fire, then, using insurance coverage, moved temporarily to the Holiday Inn, Green said. However, he had a confrontation with a staff member shortly before the fire, and was booted out of the hotel.
Also, in the mid-90s, the same man told another that he set the Holiday Inn afire. Investigators have talked to the suspect, but have not received any information that helps them advance a case against him.
“The two persons of interest that are left have been on the radar since roughly the week after the fire,” Green said.
Shadow of suspicion
An investigation raised questions about whether Phillips could have seen the fire from where he said he did and whether he was completely honest with his story that he'd gone to the Post Office then was returning to his security job in the early morning hours.
In his statement to the Democrat and Chronicle earlier this year, Phillips said he was questioned by police a few days after the fire in a 14-hour marathon interrogation where he was denied food and breaks. He said the shadow of suspicion looming over him since the day of the fire has been a heavy weight to bear.
"I have dedicated my life to my community and other than these false accusations that have haunted me for forty years, I never had a day that I regretted my decision to follow my childhood dream to be a firefighter," he said.
Under Phillips' stewardship, the Ridge Road Fire District became the first internationally accredited fire department in New York and the department switched from a volunteer force to fully career. Phillips was instrumental in the creation of Monroe County's first Hazardous Materials response team. In 2006, he was named Career Fire Chief of the Year by the state Association of Fire Chiefs and has served as director of that organization, state director of the Eastern Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and vice-Chair of that organization's Executive Fire Officers section.
At the Holiday Inn all those years ago, Phillips said he did only what he was trained to do: run into a burning building and save lives.
"People ask why I have not cooperated or why did I get a lawyer," he said. "The answers are simple, I did cooperate in 1978 and when the recent investigations were headed the same way, I needed to protect myself and my family. I did the right thing that night and I have told the men and women of the (Ridge Road Fire) District, to do the same thing if they ever find themselves in a situation like I did, no matter what the consequences later may be. To be honest, if the same situation presented itself today, I would do the same thing."
For now the criminal case is no closer to answers than it was in the initial days as the remains of the dead were removed from the ashes.
"We would like nothing better than to bring closure to this case," said Greece Police Chief Phelan, who was just 9 years old when his now 83-year-old father led the Holiday Inn investigation. "Everybody who's been a cop as long as we have has certain cases that they'll never forget. And I know this is one of those cases for him, and I know he really wanted to get this solved and it's stayed with him to this day."
But, Phelan said resolving the case is about the pursuit of justice.
"The amount of people affected by this fire, the 10 fatalities, those victims who were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children, and all their families were affected, and the first responders. Although we can't give anyone their loved ones back, we could bring some kind of closure to this case and we'd like to do that."
Doorley said she too would like justice, but for now, prosecutor's hands are tied.
"Obviously it's frustrating," Doorley said. "It was a very horrific event. Ten families lost loved ones. It would be nice to bring answers and closure. I've got to follow the law."