Ten years ago this week, the sky glowed orange as nearly 100 firefighters battled a blaze that destroyed half the guest rooms at the Seasons Lodge and Conference Center.
Two weeks later, then-Indiana State Fire Marshal Roger Johnson gave a news conference at the Brown County Law Enforcement Center and announced the cause: arson.
Johnson’s fire marshal team and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives led the investigation into the fire that destroyed 40 guest rooms before dawn on Jan. 2, 2007.
The origin, they determined, was in a stack of wood outside the hotel.
Story continues below gallery
“There was no logical reason for the fire to start where it started,” Johnson said last week. “A pile of wood doesn’t normally catch fire by itself.”
Ten years since the fire, there have been no arrests or convictions.
Last week, the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office could not answer questions about the status of the case, as the records were not readily available.
Andy Rogers, former owner of the hotel, said last week that he isn’t sure it was intentional, but he believes a person started the fire.
“I was always bothered by that,” Rogers said about no suspect being arrested if it was, in fact, an intentional act.
Then-Brown County Prosecutor Jim Oliver received the findings of the investigation from Johnson on Jan. 19, 2007, the day after the news conference and more than two weeks after the fire.
Oliver said one suspect was identified and the information revealed the fire was intentionally set, “but there wasn’t enough evidence to bring a case against that suspect, or anybody,” he said.
When asked about a motive, Oliver said there was only “innuendo.”
“Arson cases are considered the toughest to prove because much of the evidence is destroyed in the fire. And so I think, it’s my understanding that, there are an awful lot of arson (cases) that go unsolved,” he said last week.
Johnson said a second suspect was identified, but there was not enough evidence to bring charges against that person either.
Oliver said it was frustrating not getting an arrest or conviction in the case.
“But I wasn’t going to bring a case where I wasn’t confident that I knew who did it,” he said.
‘A glow in the sky’
Zack Davis, a 20-year-old front desk clerk, and ambulance workers and police officers who were first on scene were credited with helping to evacuate the hotel’s 18 guests.
At 3:03 a.m., Davis called 911 after smelling smoke and before alerting guests.
He received a Hometown Hospitality Award from the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau the same month for his help, according to Brown County Democrat archives.
Using fire extinguishers from the ambulance, EMT Micah Fox, paramedic Eric Koperba, then-Nashville Deputy Town Marshal Kim Cruser and then-Brown County Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Bowling went door-to-door through the smoke-filled hallways, evacuating the guests.
Bowling is now a sergeant with the sheriff’s department. Fox is currently chief of the Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department.
Fox was credited with radioing then-Chief Dallas “Dak” Kelp about flames coming out of the roof, and Kelp radioed every fire department in Brown County along with Harrison Township from Bartholomew County and Bloomington Township in Monroe County, according to Brown County Democrat archives.
“There was a lot of fire. It was running across the roof,” said Kelp.
Johnson was also at the scene early to photograph the blaze. He said his job was to document it.
“Upon arrival, I was some distance from the hotel, I noticed a glow in sky. I realized how serious of a working fire it was from quite some distance away because you could see the fire in the sky, not the flames but the glow,” Johnson said.
“I wanted to document as much as I could for the investigators on my team. … The more pictures you take in the early stages of a fire, the better off the investigation goes.”
Water access was a problem.
The fire departments had one “relatively close” hydrant, but they had to stretch between 800 and 1,200 feet of fire hose to reach two more hydrants, Kelp said.
To get more volume and to attack from the other side of the hotel, Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Department used a hydrant at the Brown County IGA — across State Road 46 East from The Seasons — causing fire personnel to shut down the highway.
Firewalls and concrete floors in the lodge — which was actually four separate buildings connected by stairways and breezeways — helped keep the fire from spreading to the east side of the building, which still stands and is in use today.
Coordinating nearly 100 firefighters on a scene was also a challenge, Kelp said.
“That’s why the command structure was split up by basically geographical location. We had one side, Harrison (Township) had another side and our other crew had the east end of the building,” he said.
“There’s no way I could have kept track of 100 firefighters.”
Kelp said it’s possible the fire may have been accidental, but he cannot say for sure.
Some guest rooms contained fireplaces. Kelp said he believed it was practice for hotel employees to take any wood not burned in those fireplaces and put it back into an outside wood pile, which is where officials believe the fire started.
Kelp said a fire could have ignited if a guest decided to use an accelerant, like lighter fluid, to start a fire in the fireplace and hotel staff ended up putting a piece of wood back into the wood pile when it was still smoldering.
“That is a possibility. It’s plausible. Do I believe that? I don’t know, because that avenue was never explored as to, ‘Hey, did this happen?’” Kelp said last week.
“It very well could have been an accidental fire. Do I think that’s the case? I don’t know.”
Rogers said he was not aware of such a practice at the time of the fire.
Johnson said he had heard that theory and it could be a possibility, but he never received any concrete information relating to it.
Johnson said he believes the case will remain open but that the state fire marshal office won’t continue to actively investigate it unless new information is presented. There’s no “cold case” division in the fire marshal’s office, he said.
“I think it’s always going to be open, unless somebody comes forward and says ‘I set the fire’ or unless some other evidence appears,” he said.
Johnson ended up presenting the Brown County volunteer fire department with an outstanding service award for how they fought the fire.
“It could have lost the entire hotel. They stopped it. They contained it,” he said.
“It was an incredible fire, a very large fire, a dangerous fire. The fact that no one was hurt … (there were) no victims and the hotel itself (was not lost) made for a successful outcome as far as firefighting is concerned.”
The Seasons Lodge reopened April 15, 2007, with 20 guest rooms, its restaurant, bar, swimming pool and conference center. April 15 was also the date the Seasons first opened in 1970, according to Democrat archives.
The lodge is now in fully working order with restored guest rooms in both the east and west wings.
Though not damaged by the flames, the east wing did sustain some water damage, according to newspaper archives.
Kelp said the biggest thing he will take away from the fire is Rogers’ character.
“Of all the big fires I’ve been a part of the last 30 years, everybody (says), ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to rebuild, we’re going to rebuild.’ … He had no insurance on that building and it’s one of the very few large fires that we’ve had that actually got rebuilt,” Kelp said.
Rogers said last week he did have some insurance on the Seasons, but “not much.”
“To rebuild a hotel like that, it speaks volumes to his character to keep his employees employed,” Kelp said.