A phone call, and a thank-you, just in time

SARANAC LAKE – It was only a 10- to 15-minute phone conversation, but it was one Ruth King will never forget.

Nearly 50 years after she, as a four-and-a-half-year-old, leaped from a burning downtown hotel and into the arms of Saranac Lake firefighter Preston Burl, King finally learned the name of the man she calls “my hero” and got to talk to him over the phone, just days before Burl died of lung cancer.

“It is an unbelievable story,” King, now a blues singer and songwriter, told the Enterprise Wednesday from her home in the Orlando, Fla. area. “It’s just like falling out of a four-story building and being caught. It’s just as amazing as that. He waited 50 years for a thank-you. That was too long to wait, but I didn’t know who he was or where he was.”

The rescue

Born in Virginia in 1959 to a mixed-race couple, Ruth Anne Bergeron was raised by her grandparents for most of the first four years of her life. When she was 2, they moved to Plattsburgh.

Her mother, Gabrielle Bergeron, came north in 1963 after she got a job singing with a jazz band at the St. Regis Hotel, which was located in what is now a parking lot at the corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and Broadway. Ruth moved to her mother’s room on the five-story hotel’s top floor.

It was just after 8 a.m. and bitter cold on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 1964, when fire broke out in the basement of the St. Regis. Smoke and flames quickly spread through the brick and wood-joisted building, which had no sprinkler system. King said she remembers waking up in bed with her mother as the room was filling with smoke.

“I couldn’t see anything, and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I remember her carrying me out the hallway to go to the elevator and the stairs. The elevator was hot to the touch and the stairs had fire coming up, so we closed the door and went back to the room.”

King said her mother brought her to the bathroom, which had the only window that could be opened, and dropped her purse out the window so firefighters knew where they were.

“They were yelling up to my mother saying, ‘We don’t have a ladder to reach you,'” King said. “They had a ladder extended fully, but it only went to the fourth floor. I remember my mother putting a wet washcloth over my mouth. Then she said, ‘I’m going to jump,’ and told me to hold around her neck.”

“We were trying to get the ladder to where her mother was hollering,” Burl told an Orlando Sentinel reporter for a story published Sept. 7, four days before he died. “We swung the ladder around, but her mother grabbed the inside of the ladder. She was hanging onto her mother by her arms. I told the little girl to let go, and she fell, and I caught her.”

“I do remember hitting his arms,” King said. “I also remember he put me in the front of a station wagon. Then I remember seeing them rush up to rescue my mom on the ladder, and that’s all I remember till I was in the hospital.”

King said she was treated at the hospital for smoke inhalation and frostbite.

The Enterprise devoted most of the front page that afternoon to the blaze, which consumed the hotel. Firefighters climbed their ladders through the smoke to rescue several other people, many wearing only pajamas, from hotel windows. At least two people jumped into nets to escape the blaze. Fourteen people were taken to the hospital, but no one died.

One of the lead pictures on that front page was of Preston Burl carrying Ruth Ann Bergeron to safety.

The story

Barbara Burl, Preston Burl’s wife of 62 years, recalled the conversation she had with her husband after he came home that day. She said he told the story in a very matter-of-fact way, with no embellishment about his heroics.

“I said, ‘Did everybody get out alright?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah. I caught a little girl.’ I said, ‘What happened?’ I got all excited. He said, ‘She was on the back of the ladder with her mother, and she fell, and I caught her.’ That was it. That’s all he said. That was the way he was.”

Over the years, the St. Regis Hotel fire is something the Burl family would talk about periodically, according to Thalene Bates, one of Preston and Barbara Burl’s six children.

“There were always pictures around the house, and the Enterprise article was something that was cut out, as were a lot of other fires throughout his time in the fire department,” Bates said. “When we’d get the (Enterprise) picture out, we’d be like, ‘Do you know who this little girl is? Did you ever hear from her?’ He’d say, ‘No. I have no idea who she is, where she is, whatever happened.’ I’d say, ‘It’d be kind of cool if you talked to her.’ And he’s like, ‘What would I even do?'”

The connection

In the years after the fire, King lived in Plattsburgh until the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when she was 16.

Growing up in Plattsburgh, King said she was a 9-year-old living in “the projects” on Catherine Street when a friend gave her her first guitar.

“I taught myself how to play it, and I’ve made a 35-year career out of it,” she said.

These days, King is a regular at House of Blues in Orlando, where she plays acoustic blues or with a 1960s-style band. She’s also played other venues and music festivals across Florida and has four CDs.

King and a friend were planning a tribute concert for first responders in Tavares, Fla., in late August when the series of events that would put her in touch with Preston Burl began to unfold. King said she’s always had a soft spot for first responders because of what happened to her in Saranac Lake in January 1964.

“I thank every firefighter because I never knew who caught me,” King said. “I can’t thank him, so I thank everybody I meet. All my life I’ve been doing that.”

A reporter for the Orlando Sentinel interviewed King about the tribute concert, and King repeated the story about being rescued from a hotel fire. A link to the online version of the story was sent to Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley, who immediately emailed King to see if she’d be willing to do an interview. He also started researching the fire in the newspaper’s archives.

“The next day, Peter emails me, tells me he knows the name of the man (who rescued her), gives me his phone number and sends me the photograph of me that was on the front page of the paper that day in 1964,” King said.

While the Burl family knew the picture well, Ruth King had never seen it.

The phone call

After she was emailed Burl’s phone number on Aug. 26, King said she called it “immediately.”

“I answered the phone and said, ‘Who is this,'” said Barbara Burl. “She said, ‘This is the little girl your husband saved.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ He took the phone and talked to her for a while. By the time he got off the phone, he had tears in his eyes.”

“When I got him on the phone, and I didn’t realize then how sick he was, he was chipper and making jokes,” King said. “He kept me in stitches, and he thanked me for remembering him.”

Bates said she wasn’t there when the phone call took place, but she walked into the room about 15 minutes later.

“I came in, and his face was just beaming,” she said. “My mom was smiling, and my brother was smiling. He was excited to see it come full circle. He was honored that she was so appreciative and had dedicated a lot of her career at least in mentioning people who put their lives on the line every day for people they don’t even know.”

Loss and healing

Preston Burl was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2012. He had surgery to remove part of a lung, and his recovery seemed to be going very well, according to his family. But in April of this year, a checkup revealed the cancer had returned and was more serious.

Burl did one chemotherapy treatment and started taking pills, but Bates said her father was getting discouraged by the effects of the cancer spreading and the side effects of the drugs. It was right around that time that King called, she said.

“When she called, it was a big deal, and he got caught up in the excitement of it,” Bates said. “We checked out her website. We were sending her emails. She was sending them back, and we were reading them to him. It gave him something else to focus on, and he was excited about it.”

Burl died on Patriot Day, Sept. 11. He was 80 years old. Funeral services, including a fireman’s prayer service that drew a large contingent of firefighters, were held Monday.

Barbara Burl said the timing of King’s reconnection with her husband, days before he died, wasn’t just coincidental.

“I think God had a part in it; I really do,” she said.

King said she got an email from one of Burl’s sons on the morning he died. She said she was grateful to have had the chance to talk to her hero, even if it was for just a few minutes. She was also happy to have been so warmly received by Burl’s family.

“What it did for me – a mixed African-American and caucasian child who received a lot of brutal unkindness in my life – to have a family who was not ashamed of me and proud of me – I have a new feeling now, ever since talking to Mr. Burl and being reached out to by his family. I bet this is what it feels like to have been loved in your childhood. It seems like it’s healed me up a bit.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.