Bicentennial Snapshot No. 37: Unsolved Arson Case – The Holiday Inn Fire of 1978

Today we look back at the horrific fire at the Holiday Inn in Greece in which ten people lost their lives while staying at the Holiday Inn. Every year goes by when the generation of people who were are the scene of the horrific fire and the temperature was a balmy chilly 20°F (-6.7°C) temperature and winds out of the north around 10mph. Remember when we told you about the town of Greece didn’t join the 9-1-1 call center and operations until around 1986, before that time you would have to call the station directly or if the business had an alarm system properly wired up to the fire company’s alarm system to alert the firefighters that there was a fire at certain places of business, this also played a roll in the case of this tragic hotel fire that took the lives of ten people.

Even though the Ridge Road Fire District and North Greece Fire Department are celebrating their centennials this year there is one fire that has effect everyone at both. Every fire district in the town has battled large and small fires, auto accidents, attend training, practiced at the fire training grounds, routine fire inspections, community programs, and outreach, but never prepared them for what would become Ridge Road’s most unique fire they had to deal with in the companies first 100 years of service.

Chase-Pitkin fire, August 30, 1980, courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD

Ridge Road Fire Department has battled many fires,


…and small.

Greece Baptist Church courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD
Holiday Inn Fire, 1978, courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD

But never anything like the Holiday Inn Fire on November 26, 1978.

On Sunday, November 26, 1978, there were about 200 people staying at the Holiday Inn in Greece. According to the report Fire command, Volume 46. National Fire Protection Association, 1979 in that publishing it states there were 91 guest rooms at the hotel, but the exact number of guest rooms on November 28, 1978, is unknown due to the owner of the hotel began changing some of the guest rooms were converted into conference rooms. Among the guests were visitors from an Ontario, Canada bus tour here to take advantage of Thanksgiving weekend shopping specials, members of two wedding parties, a John Marshall alumna in town for her reunion, and attendees at the hotel’s Saturday night singles party.

Holiday Inn postcard courtesy of Bill Sauers
Holiday Inn sign courtesy of Bill Sauers

Around 2:30 am that frosty Sunday morning, a fire started among the paper products and towels stored in a closet area tucked under a first-floor stairway and that metal door for the closet area was not fire-rated or UL-labeled. The blaze spread quickly up the stairs where the fire doors had been propped open, raced down corridors, ignited the ceilings, and invaded the roof. And with strong winds from out of the north-north-west, and the temperature was hovering around 24.2°F (-4.333 °C) but with a wind chill, it would make it feel like 16.1°F (-8.333°C).

Two off-duty firefighters, one from the Greece Road fire department, the other an Albion FD fire chief, each driving on Ridge Road on the way home from a different workplace, spotted the orange glow of the flames approximately eight minutes after the fire started. The Greece firefighter radioed in the fire from his car and they both entered the building to start evacuating guests. Other people were calling from nearby payphones to report the fire. 911 wasn’t instituted until 1986 in Rochester (even later in Greece) and of course cell phones hadn’t been invented yet.

Greece 1970 Interactive Historic Data Map Monroe County
Fighting the inferno, 1978, courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD

Greece Ridge put in the call for mutual aid to help with the scene unfolding at the Holiday Inn on Ridge Road next to Corona Road. The companies that came to assist Greece Ridge were Barnard, North Greece, and the City of Rochester, who fought the blaze for two hours with more than 125 firefighters. Ten ambulances were needed at the scene. Gene Preston who was a member of Kodak Fire at the time, remembers that Kodak Fire did offer to lend assistance by connecting Greece Ridge trucks to Kodak’s water source on the ground of the Latona Road Complex, but Greece Ridge turned down Kodak Fire Department’s offer to hook up to their water source.

Rescue crews piloted 170 guests, most of them still in their night clothes and many barefoot, outside into the 16-degree cold.

As you can see on this map where (Greece Ridge) Ridge Ridge had command of the scene and the Greece Ridge chief became the incident commander, he issued the call to request mutual aid as Barnard, North Greece, and City of Rochester companies arrived at the scene, Greece Ridge fire chief began assigning the assisting companies where to deploy their firefighting equipment at the scene. The blue lines on this map are hoses that ran to the water from the fire hydrants to the trucks and from truck to truck. The green lines on this map of the scene represent the hoses that were in the firefighter’s hands. A large contingent of the firefighting efforts was coming from pumper 253 on the west side of where the origin of the fire started. The red arrows represent the direction of where the fire was traveling outward from the origin to the shaded reddish, orangish zone was where the fire able to be stopped from consuming the rest of the structure.

What is a Squrt™️ fire truck? The Squrt™️ fire truck is a brand of fire truck Trademarked by SNORKEL FIRE EQUIPMENT COMPANY CORPORATION on November 4, 1969, as you can see in the Trademark filing on the USPTO website and licensed to different manufacturers that built these kinds of fire trucks like the one in service in North Greece was built by Young Fire Equipment Corporation in Buffalo, New York.

map of units on scene
Map of Units on Scene at Holiday Inn Fire courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD

Here is a list of the abbreviations of each of the different trucks at the scene means after each of the different fire fighting apparatuses is the number of that engine.

  • E – Engine
    • E-10
    • E-11
  • L – Ladder
    • L-221
    • L-251
  • M – Medic
    • M-220
  • R – Rescue Engine
    • R-222
  • P – Pumper
    • P-251
    • P-252
    • P-253
    • P-254
    • P-255
    • P-273
    • P-274
    • P-453
  • T – Truck
    • T-3
    • T-8
  • Squrt™️
    • Squrt 1
After the fire, in 1978, courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD

By 4:30 the fire was out, but the building was a total loss. A few guests leaped from second and third-story windows to save themselves. Thirty-five people were injured. Tragically, ten people perished in the fire from smoke inhalation.

We Remember the guest that perished that early morning on November 26th, 1978

List of Canadian citizens who died in the Holiday Inn Fire

They were: Rubina “Ruth” Cushinan, age 81, and her daughter Ruby Cushinan, age 61, from York, Ontario, Canada; four people from Etobicoke, Ontario, Maguerrette Duncan, age 57, 67-year-old Edward Farley and his 62-year-old wife, Lorene, and Pamela Sagriff, age 30, and from Bramalea, Ontario, Huguette Sundude, age 30.

Names of the remaining three people who died

Joyce Plumb age 42 from Arlington Virginia who had attended her 25th high school reunion from John Marshall High School the day before; Stephen Gregory Ford, age 29, from Ypsilanti, Michigan who was in Rochester for his best friend’s wedding, and from Pompano Beach, Florida, Nancy Garrett, age 26.

white rose
Photo by Aidan Nguyen on

Results of the Fire Investigation

The hotel had a host of structural faults that contributed to the easy spread of the conflagration: The “primary factors that led to the fatalities in this incident were the combination of the highly combustible interior finish, [and] unprotected openings that existed in the stairway,” there was only one vertical firewall between the two wings and the firewalls in the buildings did not extend to the roof, allowing the fire to rip through the top floor of each wing.

Aerial view of the hotel courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD
Sprinkler head from

The hotel was equipped with a fire alarm system that included manual-pull stations and combination rate-of-rise, fixed-temperature thermal detectors as initiating devices yet it failed to do what it was intended to do to prevent the loss of life. It lacked a sprinkler system and Emergency Lighting. The alarm system wasn’t connected to the Greece-Ridge Fire Department or any other security agency.

The alarm system consisted only of one bell in the middle of each of the two wings’ five floors. The alarm didn’t have a distinctive sound nor was it loud enough. Guests didn’t recognize it as a fire alarm; they thought it was a phone in the room or an alarm clock. Furthermore, when hotel employees realized the alarms were ringing, they rushed to get people out, but no one remembered to call the fire department.

Burned-out corridor, courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD
Greece Police Headquarters Precinct 1, 1983 Office of the  Town Historian
Greece Police Headquarters Precinct 1, 1983 Office of the Town Historian

As news of the fire spread, the police department was flooded with calls. One volunteer Doug Worboys, recalls that after the fire he arrived home at 10:30 am, grabbed a little sleep, and returned to work the noon to 11 pm shift at the police dispatch office desk with fellow dispatchers Ron Timmons and Jim Leary. “We had callers from throughout the US and Canada; the farthest away, I think, was Puerto Rico. We referred most of the Holiday Inn inquiry calls to the front desk officer who was assigned to take all those types of calls. The next day they had a special line set up for further calls. You hear things like that happening in other places, but you never expect one like that in your own town. That day was a very busy day with all those calls along with calls for normal situations that occur day to day. That day was a very somber day for us dispatchers and all people involved in this fire.”

Although at first it was said that the fire was accidental, Police Chief Gerald Phelan, when speaking to reporters at the time, said that “his gut told him the fire was nonetheless suspicious due to its speed and intensity.”

Police Chief Gerald Phelan with Greece Town Supervisor Don Riley from the Office of the Town Historian

John Stickever joins the case

John Stickever, photo from his obituary New York Daily News, February 22, 2017
Butanone. (2022, November 8). In Wikipedia.

16×9 – Lost in the Flames: Legacy of historic Holiday Inn fire

Part 1 – A deadly blaze engulfs a Holiday Inn in upstate New York more than 30 years ago, claiming the lives of 7 Canadians. Investigators called it an arson but never caught the criminal responsible. Part 2 – Thirty years after the fire, a deadly arson remains unsolved.

16×9 Program on Global News From Canada

John Stickever joined the FDNY in 1959 and was assigned to Engine Co. 231 in Brooklyn. He became a fire marshal six years later. Durning Stickevers first 37 years as a fire marshall where he investigated numerous fire scenes where some were arson, and some were just accidents. In 1978, John Stickever, a New York City Fire Firefighter was just promoted to the rank of Supervising Fire Marshall in July 1978 and was an Investigator who specialized in arson and “essentially wrote the book on fire investigation training,” which is linked below. Mid-week following the fire on November 26, 1978, is when then Greece Police Chief Gerald Phelan contacted Commission Augustus Anthony Beekman of the New York City Fire Department to see if the City could send someone to help the Greece Police and Greece Ridge Fire Department to examine the Holiday Inn fire scene. It was Commissioner Augustus Anthony Beekman who called Stickever at home and the commissioner said he was the one who was selected to head to upstate New York to help with a case in Greece, NY.

When Stickever arrived he started to have firefighters clear the floor and in front of doors and other areas in the hotel, he began to notice things that the Greece Police and Greece Ridge did not see at the time of the fire which stood out to him. Stickever concluded that an accelerant of some kind had been used in starting the fire and declared it arson and the ten deaths were now ten murders. Stickever with his knowledge found burn patterns, and damage to the kickplate on the fire doors, and when the results came back from the labs, they found traces of Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK) otherwise known as Butanone was used as an accelerant which made the fire grow quickly in the stairwell, and with the winds at 2 A.M. were at about 10 miles an hour out of the North which help spread the fire quickly through the hotel, with that information both Stickever and then Assistant Monroe County District Attorney Crane, during in 1978 knew it had to be someone with the knowledge of MEK. In 1978 Stickever and then ADA Crane believe that someone would have to have knowledge of MEK and firefighting skills to know that MEK according to a website that has information on all different types of hazmat chemicals notes under PHYSICAL & CHEMICAL INFORMATION that the Physical State and Appearance is a colorless liquid with a characteristic odor from ILO and WHO 2021. The other types of accelerants would have been easily found but because MEK was used as the accelerant it made it more difficult for the firefighters to fight the fire. If the chief of Greece Ridge had requested the airport chemical fire truck from the airport which was a carbon dioxide, dry agents, or alcohol-resistant foam-based fire suppression agent in its tank would have halved the time for the first responders that day, but no one knew what accelerant was used to start it.

According to an interview Stickerver did with Crime Beat TV’s 16×9 – Lost in the Flames: Legacy of historic Holiday Inn fire and aired April 30, 2012, on Global News a division of Shaw Media Inc., in Canada, he remembers the interview one Greece Ridge firefighter said on the news and the body language of that firefighter on video, it set off some signs that were a sign that Stickever could tell that he was the critical suspect because during that interview that firefighter said he was driving towards the My Apartment Bar when he called the fire in. Stickevers pushed for the state to give marshals “police officer” status so they can enforce just like the police officers but with the ability to issue tickets, fines, fees, and official notices on properties that violate fire codes, fire safety, or other aspects of a building that would make the fire marshals not want to give okay to open the building or had to close the place down until it was brought up to code to ensure that it was safe for the public to enter said structure with that state approved this the bill that created and gave the power to create a program on fire investigation and arson in every municipality in New York State you can read the bill along with the supporters and documentation by reading the New York State bill jackets – L-1979-CH-0225 by clicking the link here to see the full text of that bill

Here is a link to the article that was written by John Stickever in the Federal Bureau of Investigation Law Enforcement Bulletin in 1986 that describes the way he does arson investigations

Phalen’s Arson Taskforce

Phelan formed a special arson task force, operating a command center out of the Pop-Lar Motel down the road from the fire site. The team of 23 local and state investigators conducted more than 400 interviews in the days after the fire. They settled on five “persons of interest,” but didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges against anyone. The two main suspects were the Greece Ridge firefighter who had radioed in the fire and a man who “had lived in two apartments that had caught fire, then, using insurance coverage, moved temporarily to the Holiday Inn. However, he had a confrontation with a staff member shortly before the fire, and was booted out of the hotel.” Monroe County Assistant District Attorney Crane along with his boss Monroe County District Attorney Lawrence T. Kurlander was given a list of 5 persons of interest and 2 main suspects that the Police gave to them as the possible suspects but without enough evidence from the fire scene and testimonial from guest, hotel employees, and people who lived around the area, it made the District Attorney office hard to pin a person to be held accountable for a change in one count of first-degree arson and ten counts of murder from the fire as well.

Here is what the New York State’s statute says Arson in the first degree from New York Laws › Penal Law › Part 3 › Title I › Article 150 > Section 20:

N.Y. Penal Law § 150.20 Arson in the first degree.
  1. A person is guilty of arson in the first degree when he
intentionally damages a building or motor vehicle by causing an
explosion or a fire and when (a) such explosion or fire is caused by an
incendiary device propelled, thrown or placed inside or near such
building or motor vehicle; or when such explosion or fire is caused by
an explosive; or when such explosion or fire either (i) causes serious
physical injury to another person other than a participant, or (ii) the
explosion or fire was caused with the expectation or receipt of
financial advantage or pecuniary profit by the actor; and when (b)
another person who is not a participant in the crime is present in such
building or motor vehicle at the time; and (c) the defendant knows that
fact or the circumstances are such as to render the presence of such
person therein a reasonable possibility.
  2. As used in this section, "incendiary device" means a breakable
container designed to explode or produce uncontained combustion upon
impact, containing flammable liquid and having a wick or a similar
device capable of being ignited.
  Arson in the first degree is a class A-I felony.
Postcard of Pop-Lar Motel, 2976 Ridge Road West, circa 1960 from
Assemblyman Roger Robach (right) with Governor Hugh Carey (center), 1979, from New York State digital archive

Assemblyman Roger Robach, who represented Greece, co-sponsored a bill in 1980 requiring hotels and motels with more than 30 rooms to have smoke detectors in every room and in hallways. It passed unanimously in the Assembly and after it was passed by the Senate was signed into law by Governor Hugh Carey.

Although an open case, it had laid dormant until 2010 when the Greece Police department, first under Chief Todd Baxter and then under his successor Patrick Phelan, gave new life to the investigation. Everything was reexamined and witnesses were interviewed again. They concluded that the firefighter was the arsonist. The Greece PD submitted its report to the Monroe County District Attorney in 2015. At the same as Cheif Baxter began his investigation, the Canadian Government want more answers from the hotel fire as well because this was an international issue and yet to date, the Canadain Government and the families of the seven Canadians that lost their lives have not gotten any answers and are left in limbo they wish this case could be solved.

Press release from the Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan
After the fire, in 1978, courtesy of Matthew Pillsbury RRFD

The District Attorney’s office, however, was not convinced that there was enough evidence to prosecute anyone. In the years since the 1978 fire, the science of arson has evolved and she didn’t feel that it was still conclusive without a doubt that it was even arson.

So, the families and friends of ten souls lost in that fire may never see anyone brought to account. The Holiday Inn Fire of 1978 was not only the deadliest fire in the history of the Town of Greece but in all of Monroe County.

Front page of the Democrat and Chronicle, November 27, 1978, clipped from

Thank you for joining us today. Next week we pay tribute to “the greatest generation.”


Bicentennial Snapshot # 34: Extreme Weather Part 2

Today we continue our look at historic weather events.

Clip 1: DPW salt barn, 2018, Office of Town Historian

DPW salt barn, 2018, Office of Town Historian

For the most part, we Grecians take snow storms in stride; they are inconvenient but manageable. We can count on the Greece DPW to have our roads plowed and salted in a timely manner.

Most of us around the Town of Greece and Monroe county are unsure if March is going to come in like a Lamb or Lion and go out like a Lamb or Lion or surprise us with some Lamb and Loin weather events in the middle of the month not just at the beginning or end of March.

However, one has to agree with local meteorologist Stacey Pensgen, hearing the words ice and high winds in a forecast can cause some anxiety in these parts or as the cliché states, once-bitten, twice shy. Two storms, in particular, come to mind: the Ice Storm of 1991 and the Wind Storm of 2017.

ice on the tree branch
Photo by Jordan Benton on
Stacey Pensgen

Ice Storm of 1991

Meteorologist Kevin Williams

Meteorologist Kevin Williams in explaining what happened said: “the ice storm commenced on March 3, 1991. It resulted from low-pressure tracking from the south into central and eastern New York. This allowed warm air from the Gulf states to flow into the upper levels of the atmosphere over Rochester, while northeast winds at the surface drew subfreezing air into the area from Ontario. Snowflakes which fell from the cold clouds above melted into raindrops upon reaching the warmer layer above the surface, only to freeze upon reaching the ground, where temperatures were below 32 degrees.”

Weather Daily Charts from the National Weather Service

Sunday, March 3, 1991, Weather Map as of 7 am
Monday, March 4, 1991 weather map as of 7 am

Greece along with the rest of Monroe County was in the “sweet spot.” Again, quoting Kevin Williams: the storm “produced a 50-mile-wide band of freezing rain aligned along the Genesee River Valley. While Syracuse to the east experienced rain, Buffalo to the west had mainly sleet and snow. But Rochester endured 17 hours of continuous freezing rain resulting in an ice accretion of more than one inch.”

It started at about 10:30 pm on Sunday, March 3, and by the early morning hours of March 4, people were awoken by what sounded like rifle shots. It was tree limbs cracking and falling to the ground. Electrical wires and telephone lines came down with the trees. Paul Holahan, Greece’s Commissioner of Public Works at the time, was alerted to the problem at 2 am and by 4 am knew it was a major event. He called John Yagielski, the school superintendent to let him know that the schools needed to be closed. They would be closed for a week.

If you like to see the Unedited version of Paul Pakusch’s 10-minute video that was posted in 2010. It Starts at Paul’s, home and yard, then his drive to work, later in the day, and the next two days around his neighborhood. Florida Ave, Dewey Ave, Seneca Parkway, Lake Ave, East Ave, Tiernan Street, River Heights, Perinton Street, California Drive, Haviland Park. Paul Pakusch worked for WHEC Channel 10 at the time during the 1991 Ice Storm.

Also if you like you can check out March 11, 1991, NewsTeam 10 special from the Ice Storm the folks that run Rochester TV Archives on YouTube have archived that broadcast and you can check it out here.

Aerial view of police headquarters on Island Cottage Road, 1983 from the Office of the Town Historian

Crews were especially needed to clear the main streets and others were needed to pump water when, because of the lack of power, the sewage pump stations failed; the police headquarters was flooded nearly every day” for a week with raw sewage. The police station itself was also without electricity and was working through an emergency generator. Fire crews didn’t bother going home, but worked around the clock.

Storm Shelter Locations

Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were without power, some for as long as two weeks. Sometimes one side of the street had power and the other did not; neighbors shared generators and long extension cords snaked over lawns and driveways. Two days after the storm the temperature plummeted; shelters were set up at Hoover Drive Junior School and the Greece Assembly of God Church. In North Greece, Irene DeMay opened the doors to Hotel DeMay as a shelter as well. You can learn more about the Hotel DeMay in Snapshot 25.

Customers Without Power – WHEC’s Ice Storm Coverage March 1991 you can watch the WHEC NEWS TEAM 10 coverage of the Ice Storm on YouTube on the Rochester TV Archive channel
Aerial view of Hoover Drive Junior High, the 1940s, from the Office of the Town Historian
Greece Assembly of God
Ice storm damage, 1991, photo by Bill Sauers
Ice storm damage, 1991, photo by Bill Sauers

Trash didn’t get picked up and mail wasn’t delivered for two days.

More than three thousand trees in the town of Greece were damaged. DPW crews were busy into June clearing away brush and tree debris and hauling it to the Flynn Road transfer center; 400,000 cubic yards of it or enough wood to build 7,000 homes.

Still from Paul Pakusch 39 minute video from the 1991 Ice Storm
Ice storm, 1991, from the Office of the Town Historian

In the aftermath of the Ice Storm of ’91, the town, already operating on an austerity budget and waiting for FEMA money, had to borrow money to meet expenses by the end of the year; RG&E started a rigorous tree-trimming protocol, and residents were left with indelible memories of terrible destruction as well as breathing-taking beauty and stories to tell for generations to come about cold nights, helpful neighbors, and surviving the “Storm of the Century.”

“April is the cruelest month,”

— The Waste Land by T. S. Elliot, Poet

The poet T. S. Elliot said that “April is the cruelest month,” but weatherwise for Greece, it’s the month of March. Out of the top ten worst snowstorms in Rochester’s history, four were in March. The 1984 Leap Day storm lasted more than five days, bringing more than 30 inches. There were two blizzards at the beginning of March 1999, dropping 42 inches of snow. We got off relatively lightly during the “Storm of the Century” on March 12, 1993, with 23 inches of snow, thunder, and lightning.

Snowiest and Least Snowest Marches from 1896 to 2021 using data from and NOAA

Wind Storm of 2017

On March 3, 2017, we had winds gusting to 60 miles an hour, bringing down trees and power lines. But that was just an appetizer for what Mother Nature had in store for us less than a week later. Blame it on the sun. It was a gorgeous day on March 8, 2017. Now the forecast did call for high winds. But most people thought it would be a repeat of the 3rd. However, all that sunshine destabilized the atmosphere; the sun heated the air and as the warm air rose it created a vacuum and air rushed in to fill the vacuum, that is wind.

Formation of wind as a result of localized temperature differences.
Blue dots are Wind Speed, Greece Triangles is the Wind Gust, Gray is the Peak Wind

Winds gusted to 40, 50, and 60 mph much of the day, broke 70 mph around 1 p.m., and then hit an astonishing 81 mph at 1:35 p.m. Trees came crashing down onto streets and on top of homes and on Long Pond Road utility poles fall in a row like a set of dominoes. 40,000 homes and businesses lost power in Monroe County, a large portion of them in Greece.

Repair work was delayed as the high winds persisted into the next day, making it too dangerous for crews. Utility workers from all over came to assist RG & E. Local hotels were full of residents so a crew from Canada was billeted at the Greece Community Center. Some homes were without power for two weeks.

Repairs on Long Pond were delayed due to the lack of enough utility poles to replace all the broken ones. We’ve had more wind and ice storms since these two big ones, which is why whenever ice or wind is in the forecast, we hope it won’t be as bad as the Ice Storm of 1991, or the Wind Storm of 2017.

Thanks for joining us today. Join us again next week as we pay tribute to the soldiers of World War I.