A thank-you, in person

SARANAC LAKE – More than 50 years after she fell from a burning downtown hotel into the arms of a Saranac Lake firefighter, Ruth King will return here this weekend to headline a concert and fundraiser to benefit the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department.

King, who lives in Florida and is a blues singer and songwriter, will perform Saturday at the Waterhole upstairs. The event, which begins at 6:30 p.m., will include performances by other artists, a buffet dinner, a silent auction and a 50-50 raffle. It costs $10 to attend.

This will be the first time King has returned to Saranac Lake since January 1964, when she and her mother, Gabrielle Bergeron, were living in a fifth-floor apartment at the St. Regis Hotel, which was located on what is now a parking lot at the corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and Broadway. Bergeron, who was 25 years old at the time, was working as the hotel’s lounge singer.

When fire broke out in the building on a cold morning in January 1964, the only escape for then-4-and-a-half-year-old Ruth and her mother was out their apartment’s bathroom window. Firefighters extended a ladder to them, but it couldn’t reach high enough. Bergeron somehow was able to grab on to the inside of the ladder, with her daughter dangling precariously off her back. From below, firefighter Preston Burl told the girl to let go, and she fell into his arms.

“I do remember hitting his arms,” King told the Enterprise in a story published last year about the rescue. “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.”

The fire destroyed the building. Fourteen people were taken to the hospital, but no one died.

King lived in Plattsburgh until she was 16 before moving to Florida with her family. She never knew the name of the man who rescued her until last year. She and a friend were planning a tribute concert for first responders in Tavares, Florida when a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel interviewed her about it and she told the story about being rescued in a Saranac Lake hotel fire.

Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley found the Sentinel’s story online through a Google News Alert for “Saranac Lake” and contacted King. He then looked through Enterprise archives and found a copy of the newspaper’s front page from the day of the fire. One of the lead pictures was of Burl carrying King to safety. Enterprise local history columnist Howard Riley told Crowley Burl was still alive, and Crowley passed that on to King, along with Burl’s phone number.

King immediately called Burl, and the two talked on the phone for 10 to 15 minutes. The conversation, which both King and Burl later described as emotional, came less than two weeks before Burl died of lung cancer at the age of 80.

“I wish that I had gotten up there to meet Preston Burl in person,” King said Tuesday. “(The concert) just seemed like one thing I could do to say thank you, since I didn’t get to hug him in person. It’s a chance to say thank you and raise some money for guys that are heroes.”

Since reconnecting with Burl, King has formed a strong bond with members of his family, who will be at the concert Saturday. She’s also received emails and visits to her concerts from local people who read the Enterprise story.

“I feel embraced, if not adopted by your town,” King said. “I didn’t get a lot of warm fuzzies being up there pre-Civil Rights in the upstate North Country. But through the Enterprise article and the emails and especially the Burl family, I just feel so accepted and embraced. I’m going up there because I just feel loved.”

Bringing King back to Saranac Lake for a concert to benefit the fire department was the idea of Elizabeth Whipps, who bartends and hosts an open mic night at the Rusty Nail bar on Broadway. Whipps said she was inspired by the Enterprise story about King reconnecting with Burl.

“I thought it was such a nice story,” she said. “I was very, very touched by it. I have not been a victim of fire, but I have family and friends that have been, so I understand. And it was just such an act of bravery on (Burl’s) part.”

Whipps said local businesses have been very generous in donating items for the silent auction. She’s also raised money through private donors to cover King’s travel costs.

King is expected to fly into the Plattsburgh airport on Friday and arrive in Saranac Lake later that night. She’ll be traveling with Vala Rhea Bennett, a backup singer and percussionist in her six-member band, who will perform with King Saturday night. King said her mom, who lives in North Carolina, will not be able to make the trip but has given her some “notes” to read during the performance.

“She’ll be there in spirit,” King said. “If there could be two heroes to my story, she’s the other hero.”

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