A fire severely damaged the River’s Edge Motel in Ferryville on Tuesday, July 21.
The Crawford County 911 Dispatch Center was notified of the fire at 5:35 p.m., according to the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department.
Ferryville Fire Chief Tom Chernouski initially observed the fire as he drove past the motel on Highway 35 in his personal vehicle. Thinking at first the fire might be coming from a charcoal grill or bonfire, Chernouski stopped to investigate and quickly realized a shed behind the motel was on fire.
About that time, a younger child came up to him waving his hands and yelling, “Fire, fire, fire.” Chernouski told the boy to call 911 and that he would return.
The chief used a portable base radio in his personal vehicle to contact the 911 Dispatch Center and reported the fire. He proceeded to the fire department on the south end of town and by then the pager alarm was going off. He pulled a tanker truck out and waited for arriving firemen to join him.
“Unfortunately, no one came right away,” Chernouski recalled later. He started back toward the fire alone in the truck. A mutual aid call to DeSoto and Gays Mills went out.
On the radio, Chernouski made an urgent plea to the dispatcher for manpower. At the scene, the chief worked to get the hose to the back of the hotel. Two passersby stopped to assist him with the hose. One told the chief he served on a volunteer fire department in Illinois. With the help of the men, Chernouski got the hose in position behind the motel and began trying to suppress a very hot fire coming from the shed. The pumper truck carried 1,000 gallons of water.
The shed just six feet from the motel was creating problems for Chernouski, because it was filled with accelerants like paint, paint thinner and gasoline.
“There were so many accelerants and the heat was just intense,” the chief said.
As if the shed wasn’t enough of a problem, Chernouski quickly recognized a 1,500-gallon LP tank adjacent to the shed could become an even bigger problem. Two automobiles just to the south of the shed caught fire in a matter of minutes.
The chief continued to cool the LP tank with water from the hose while simultaneously trying to suppress the fire in the shed and the vehicles. At some point, Chernouski could see “the cars were history,” so he concentrated on spraying water onto the LP tank and the structure. In 10 minutes, the back of the motel structure had caught on fire from the intense heat of the burning shed.
Worst of all, Chernouski knew he was running out of the available water. He turned to one of the men helping him and told the man he hoped “somebody comes soon.”
As the chief was just about out of water, he heard the sirens coming down Highway 35. He described it later as “a major relief.”
“Oh my God another fire truck,” Chernouski said recalling that moment. “I was so thankful.”
The fire departments of DeSoto and Gays Mills arrived simultaneously.
Chernouski was relieved when he saw “everyone pitching in, attacking the fire from the front of the motel and moving onto the roof.” The cavalry had arrived.
Chernouski said that he thought the motel building was a total loss. However, he noted that some of the personal property of those living in the apartment residence on the second floor of the building was saved.
A cabin just to the north of the motel was saved and it may provide a place for those residents to live temporality.
In addition to DeSoto and Gays Mills, the Bridgeport Fire Department and the Seneca Fire Department were also among the initial departments responding to the call of mutual aid. Later, at Chernouski’s direction the Wheatland and Genoa Fire Departments were asked to provide mutual aid to relieve firefighters, who were being exhausted by the heat.
As for Chernouski’s feelings about the mutual aid?
“I almost went to each guy and shook his hand to thank him,” the chief said.
While he may have been the only Ferryville firefighter in town when the fire started several arrived later to help with the fire. One, Andy Novak, drove as fast as he could all the way from UW-LaCrosse, where he is employed as a carpenter.
Chernouski, like others in the village, were happy the fire didn’t spread to other structures on Main Street.
Ferryville Village Clerk Larry Quamme praised the work of Chernouski and the other volunteer firefighters in keeping the blaze from spreading.
“It was a phenomenal job,” Quamme said later. The village clerk was out of town during the fire, but had seen some of the pictures and understood the potential for further damage.
The fire rekindled from hot spots and had to be extinguished again at 1 a.m., according to Quamme.
Quamme explained that when fires occur during the day in Ferryville, there are often fewer personnel available to respond because some firefighters work out of town.
In all the mutual aid that was requested, the Lansing Fire Department across the river in Iowa was not called. The possibility of calling out Lansing was broached by the 911 dispatcher with Chernouski, but the call was not made.
Quamme, Chernouski and some of the firefighters recalled being joined by the Lansing Fire Department for car accidents on the causeway and bridges across the river, but were unclear if the two departments had ever worked together to fight a fire.
The River’s Edge Motel was not occupied at the time of the fire. However, the apartment on the second floor was occupied by the owner Barbara Dunkelberger's daughter, Laurie Lachman, Ryan McCarty and Lachman’s two sons.
While two of McCarty’s cars were destroyed in the blaze, another car and a boat were saved, according to Dunkelberger. Initially, the owner had hopes that the motel could be repaired, but she now believes it is probably a total loss.
The motel is located 132 Main Street in Ferryville between the Wooden Nickel Saloon and the Sportsman Bar, which is currently closed and being remodeled.
There was severe damage to the apartment and the detached shed behind the motel, according to the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department However, no one was injured in the fire.
“The cause of the fire is still under investigation,” the sheriff’s department stated. The State Fire Marshall was called to assist the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department and was on the scene Wednesday morning.