Pre-dawn terror: Clifton fire kills two women

Stepping through the front door of Clifton Inn on Friday morning, November 14, one sees sickening evidence of the pre-dawn blaze that took two lives and left two other guests hospitalized.

In the entryway, once elegant wallpaper is crinkled into brown scraps on the wall, a result of the searing heat. The walls and ceiling are dark brown and cracked, and the acrid scent of smoke is overpowering– even hours after the fire has been extinguished.

This pre-fire notice is a poignant reminder of happier times at Clifton.


Although to the left of the entry hall a small library is untouched by flames, in the drawing room to the right, where firefighters believe the blaze started, the fire has consumed everything in its path.

Here, where restaurant chefs used to regale dinner guests with descriptions of the exotic menu offerings for the evening, ruination is everywhere. Broken glass crunches underfoot, and the once polished floorboards are black and covered with ash. The charred remains of antiques look like grotesque logs in a room-sized fireplace.

But while the ground floor presents the most stunning display of destruction, it's on the second level that true tragedy struck.

That's where two women, Billie Kelly and Trish Langlade, recruiters for the New York law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, perished. Kelly and Langlade, accompanied by seven other members of the firm, were in town visiting students from UVA law school.

Porch furniture escaped the nearby blaze unscathed.


Bob Lowery, Albemarle fire marshal, says firefighters using thermal imaging equipment were able to pierce the dense smoke and find the bodies of the two women, as well as their colleague who survived, Margaret Mansouri, a 2002 graduate of UVA law school. Lowery says that Kelly and Langlade were not in their beds when they were found, but declined to elaborate further on the investigation.

According to Albemarle County Fire Chief Dan Eggleston, Mansouri, who was rescued unconscious from a bedroom on the first floor, and a male guest, who jumped from a second story window to escape the flames, were taken to UVA for treatment.

A male guest jumped to safety from a rear second-floor window.


The property's other 11 guests– including two also staying in the main house– escaped unharmed. According to Chief Eggleston, one firefighter received minor injuries during the blaze and was taken to UVA hospital. She was later released.

How did it happen?

"We're checking to see if smoke detectors and other systems were working," says Eggleston, who reports that no cause for the fire has been established. Whether those detectors were battery operated or hard-wired is unknown. The Inn was not equipped with sprinklers, Lowery says.

And because of the extensive damage to the sitting room, the fire's alleged point of origin, Eggleston says, "We may not be able to find the cause."

High winds had knocked power out over much of the Charlottesville area Thursday night into Friday morning, including at the Clifton Inn, but it's unclear whether candles or fires in the Inn's many fireplaces contributed to the blaze.

Albemarle County spokesperson Lee Catlin says the last major safety inspection of the premises occurred in 1999. The inspection, she says, found some deficiencies that were remedied by October of that year. Faulty wiring has already been ruled out, Catlin says.

As for structural damage, although the county released a damage estimate of $250,000, it might have been worse, says Dave Cason, volunteer chief from Monticello Fire and Rescue.

"The fire didn't run the walls," says Dave Cason, volunteer chief of Monticello Fire and Rescue.

"The heavy timbers kept it in check," says Cason. While new construction– with paper-coated drywall and 2X4 framing studs– can go up like a matchbox, Clifton, built around 1799 by Thomas Jefferson's son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. [see sidebar], is "heavy duty," says Cason.

The fire never made it to the attic, he says, which slowed down the progress of the blaze through the remaining rooms of the Inn.

J.F. Legault, Clifton's general manager, says he was summoned from bed at 5:15am with a phone call from the fire department. Five hours later, he stands in the front yard stunned, staring at the shattered windows and the charred rooms.

"This," he whispers, choked with emotion, "is so rough."

Firefighters shoveled ash and debris by the wheelbarrowful on Friday morning, November 14.


The fire started in the drawing room; UVA law school grad Margaret Mansouri was rescued from the adjacent room.