Northland motel operators hope to reopen after major fireTo halt the spread of a fast-moving fire, firefighters and a local contractor worked together to tear down part of the Vermilion Motel in Cook early Sunday morning.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
COOK — To halt the spread of a fast-moving fire, firefighters and a local contractor worked together to tear down part of the Vermilion Motel in Cook early Sunday morning.
Officials at the scene said that probably prevented an already major fire from being even more catastrophic in a small community that already had seen one devastating fire this year.
“I’m not a fire expert or anything, but I’m pretty sure that’s what saved the rest of the motel and the (attached) Country Store from going up in flames, too,” Sgt. Wayne Toewe of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office said of the role played by an excavator operator from KGM Contractors Inc. of Angora.
With much of the motel on the south side of Cook engulfed in flames and at least six fire departments paged to fight the fire, KGM was called upon to flatten the dwelling of the motel’s caretaker, creating a gap in the motel structure and sparing three adjacent hotel units, plus the attached convenience store and a gas station, from further damage.
KGM had heavy equipment in the area working on the U.S. Highway 53 expansion project. Mark Abramson, one of the construction firm’s co-owners, said he called in John Herdman, an equipment operator, to assist with a 400 Komatsu excavator.
“We’ve done a lot of fire work for the Forest Service before, but not much with working structure fires like this,” Abramson said. But Abramson said KGM was glad to offer its services to assist firefighters.
Joan Hahn, who manages the motel, said all 17 rooms were occupied at the time of the fire, but no one was hurt. The Sheriff’s Office estimated damage at more than $500,000. The Minnesota State Fire Marshal’s office and the Sheriff’s Office are continuing to investigate the blaze.
Hahn said the cause of the fire has not yet been determined.
“It started in unit one, got into the roof and really took off from there,” she said.
Larry Hahn, Joan’s husband, speculated that a neon sign mounted on the end of the hotel may have ignited the blaze.
The fire was discovered about 3 a.m., when a guest awoke to the smell of smoke in her room. Guests and motel staff quickly raced from room to room, rousing people and advising them to get out of the building.
Charlene Hanson — who manages the adjacent gas station, convenience store, restaurant and bait shop called the Country Store — learned about the fire via an early morning phone call and rushed to the scene.
“The parking lot was completely full of firetrucks and ambulances. With all the foam they were using, it looked almost like a giant bubble bath,” she recalled.
As a precaution, flammable products and ammunition initially were pulled from the shelves of the Country Store, but flames never reached the business, which continued to supply food and fuel to firefighters and their rigs.
Both the Country Store and the Vermilion Motel are owned by Tom Musech, a local businessman. The operation has been in the Musech family for more than 40 years.
Joan Hahn expressed optimism that the motel could reopen on a limited basis next weekend, after a thorough cleanup of the remaining rooms. She said Musech, who is her brother, intends to rebuild damaged parts of the hotel as soon as possible, perhaps yet this construction season. Hahn said the business was insured, and an agent was on the scene Sunday.
Hahn said she will continue to work with others in the area hospitality industry to find accommodations for displaced guests as repairs get underway.
“We’ve received lots of support,” she said. “Cook is a very close-knit town where people pretty much no everyone, and folks come out right away and try to help when something like this happens. Everyone does what they can.”
Cook, population 574, has seen more than its fair share of fires in recent months. On June 17, a fire burned down a building that housed two businesses, the Cook Dollar Barn and Gilley’s Naturals, as well as eight apartments. Hahn said there also were a couple more local residences damaged by fire over the winter.
“It seems like the whole town is burning up,” joked Bob Copeland, who has made his home in the Cook area for 36 years now.
But he said the city’s residents have repeatedly demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity.
“That’s the way we do it up here. People tend to really come together in tough times to make sure no one gets left in the cold,” Copeland said.
He said Musech, given his track record, can be assured of his community’s support as he works to recover.
“Tom and his family are always doing things for everyone. They’re always giving back to the community,” Copeland said, noting that what goes around comes around.