13WHAM Investigation - Unsolved: Fire at the Holiday Inn

10 people died in the 1978 fire at the Ridge Road Holiday Inn (WHAM file photo)

(WHAM) – Thanksgiving weekend is upon us, and while many will gather to give thanks for life’s blessings, others will pause to remember a fire four decades ago.

Ten people would die in that fire, and for the families of the victims, the questions raised 40 years ago remain unanswered today.

Drive along Ridge Road, and you will pass the Red Lobster restaurant. That’s where some will gather on Saturday, November 24, to remember an unsolved mystery.

Flames would spread rapidly through the Holiday Inn that stood there. Tom Knowles was one of the first to respond.

“I was home. My alert radio went off,” Knowles recalled. “And I heard the broadcast saying there was a working fire at the Holiday Inn, with people in the building. I got up and responded.”

“I didn’t get, probably – and it’s an estimate - maybe 10, 12 feet in,” he continued, “and I saw my first fire victim. I crawled up, and I could describe It was a younger lady, dark hair.”

Filled to capacity, 10 people would die in that fire – seven of them from Canada, on a holiday shopping trip.

Tracy Sundue would lose her mother, grandmother and aunt that night. Her dad broke the news.

“He sat us down on his lap,” Tracy said, “He had both of us, held both of us on each side and he was trying to tell us something I could tell there was something wrong. And then, when he finally said the words – and I don’t even remember exactly how he said - that she died, I was frozen, and I remember my sister just bawled.”

In later years, she would more fully realize she was not alone. A Facebook page would bring families together in search of answers. Anthony Niccoli founded the page. He wasn’t even born in 1978, but his dad was a Rochester firefighter at the time.

“I think, certainly, it’s been a good place for victims’ families, emergency responders and members of the community to come together to share feelings and talk about the situation,” said Niccoli.

The Facebook discussion is a broad one. There are many references to how quickly the fire spread, allegations of poor construction, poor building design, not being up to code – and while lives might have been saved if that were not the case, the fact remains lives would have been spared if someone had not started it.

Gerald Phelan was police chief at the time.

“The fire at the Holiday Inn was arson,” he said at a news conference after the fire. “The fire that occurred in that structure was a set fire.”

His son, Patrick Phelan, is police chief today. Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter, his immediate predecessor, would search for resolution again in 2015.

“We opened a brand new investigation,” Baxter told 13WHAM. “That’s how we looked at it when we opened it up, back in Greece, and the whole idea was to look at it with today’s eyes.”

“Based on all that information, as I looked at it, I believe it’s an arson fire, And I’m not an expert, but the experts were telling me the information I needed to say there’s no other plausible reason for this thing to start and move that fast, besides an intentional start.”

Patrick Phelan would follow up and, indeed, two years ago, thought they had a break in the case.

“At that time, we felt we had a prosecutable case that we thought that we could present to a grand jury,” said Chief Phelan. “We still believe that.”

And what happened in that time?

“You’d have to ask the D.A.,” said Phelan, “because we still believe we have a prosecutable case.”

But the D.A. feels otherwise. Lab tests show a possibility it could have been an accidental fire.

“So without knowing whether an arson occurred, we really couldn’t go forward; that was the huge stumbling block in the case,” said Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley.

“Thinking you have probable cause to make an arrest is one thing,” she continued, “but, you know, as a district attorney and chief law enforcement officer, I want to make sure that when I present a case to a grand jury that, you know, we have sufficient evidence to, going forward, to charge someone and be successful at trial. And I don’t think the evidence here amounted to that.”

Fire Lieutenant Harold ‘Bud” Phillips was the first one on the scene that night 40 years ago. He told investigators he was driving by and saw the flames. Years later, in 2013, police searched his office at the fire department for any evidence related to the fire.

Two years before that search, Phillips told former 13WHAM News reporter Patrice Walsh that he didn’t start the fire.

“The only thing that I contributed to that fire that night was, I’m the one that actually called it in first and started saving people’s lives who were jumping out of the windows of that building,” he said in 2011. “

“It wasn’t a very long interview,” said Walsh, “but I really respected the fact that he was willing to sit down and talk. I don’t think it changed anything in terms of any answers or anything like that, but he told me at the time that he was innocent and that it was difficult to live your life when people think you did something that you didn’t.”

“In America, we’re innocent until proven guilty,” said Baxter, “and that’s been hanging over his head and the town’s head, and the police department’s for 40 years now, and he was investigated initially and we considered him a person of interest when we instituted the investigation. But in our system, you need the appropriate amount of evidence before you can make any accusations. So I intentionally call people persons of interest. I don’t ever want to label someone a suspect unless I have enough cause.”

We reached out to Harold Phillips through his attorney to see if he was willing to be interviewed. We still await a formal response.

And so, the conversation will continue on Facebook – those who write, hoping for some break in the case.

Laurie Kingsley is a retired Rochester Police officer and a 14-year-old member of the North Greece Fire Department Explorer Post at the time of the fire – and echoes the recurring theme of the Facebook page.

“It’s interesting to see what people believe and what people think,” she said. “I’d want to know who put that down and why. And the outcome – you look at the ten people who died in this and, why would you want to do that?”

“it’s going to take a grand jury investigation with a special prosecutor from outside of Monroe County, go through the whole thing, and let’s find out what happened and why,” said attorney Bill Mulligan

“I keep telling myself, there’s somebody out there that hasn’t either come forward or been spoken to that knows a little itty-bitty piece,” said Kingsley. “And they think it’s nothing, and it’s going to hold the whole key to this, and we just all have to reach out there for that.”

“There’s no one that can commit a murder of ten people and not share that with anybody,” said Baxter. “That’s just against human nature. You talk to someone, whether it’s a loved one, or you brag about something. You have alcohol at one time and let something sputter. That’s how we break cases, and this is an amazing fact that we never come forward with that, as many people that talk in that community. But with that being said, that’s the last piece we’re looking for: Someone to come forward with information that they had, maybe for years and years, and because of time or because of conscience of heart, I pray that they come forward someday.”

As many gather to pray this Thanksgiving week, the families of those who died in the Holiday Inn fire will also pray – including Tracy Sundue.

“I guess you just have to keep living in a way, right?” she said. “And that’s what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re going to get an answer,” she continued. “I would love to. I would love for people to prove me wrong.”

“My heart goes out to the families,” said Chief Phelan. “I understand the pain that they’re are going through, that they’re still going through. We’ve never stopped working on this case And we believe we have a case we can prosecute.”

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