Wake-up call: Inns eye safety after Clifton tragedy

A romantic weekend in a luxurious, historic inn, sipping champagne in front of a fireplace in a candlelit room: fantasy getaway or recipe for disaster?

Last November's tragic fire at the four-diamond Clifton Inn– recently hit with lawsuits seeking over $10 million in the deaths of two women– raises questions about just how safe these elegant accommodations are.

The complaints charge that the Clifton Inn and its owners, Mitchell and Emily Willey, failed to comply with fire safety codes, including smoke alarm maintenance and backup; that windows were painted shut, preventing the escape of New York law firm recruiters Trish Langlade and Billie Kelly, and that employees left the inn unattended with candles and fireplaces blazing.

No charges will be filed against the inn or its employees, according to the July 23 report of the Albemarle Fire Marshal's investigation of the November 14 fire. While a 1999 inspection turned up a number of fire code violations, those were fixed, say the report. The county says the fire was accidental, and its exact cause is undetermined.

Andrea Wilson remembers being concerned about upstairs windows in the 1799 main structure when she worked there seven years ago and couldn't get them open to spray some wasps' nests. "I tried– and a handyman tried– to open the windows," she says.

Craig Hartman was innkeeper and executive chef at that time, and he wasn't worried about the windows. The inn was repainted twice during the six years he was there, he says, and when he left, "There wasn't a window we couldn't open."

He was more troubled by the old electrical system, which he says was replaced entirely during his tenure running the inn. He also recalls being concerned about the wood-burning fires in the guest rooms, and the factor he calls "guest error."

Now executive chef at the Statler Hotel in Ithaca, New York, Hartman left Clifton to run an inn in Colorado that had burned and sat vacant for years after a guest fell asleep while smoking a cigarette.

"I think most owners and innkeepers are hypersensitive about safety issues," says Hartman, especially in historic country inns with fireplaces in every room and no sprinkler systems.

When he and his wife were renovating the Cliff House in Colorado, they put sealed, gas fireplaces in every room. "I thought they were the cheesiest thing in the world," he says, but they were safe, and the guests like them."

The Clifton Inn fire made local innkeepers take stock.

"That could have been us," says Rose Farber, one of the owners of High Meadows Vineyard Inn.

After the fire, High Meadows had three different fire inspections. Farber was surprised to learn that Albemarle County does not require annual inspections.

"We called to request an inspection, and were told they only did surprise inspections"– a problem if the innkeepers wanted to be there. They did get a county inspection– but called in two other firefighters from Charlottesville for safety checks as well.

That policy may be changing, says county spokesperson Lee Catlin. 'We were well within state and local guidelines at the time of the fire," she says. However, "as a growing county, we may need to put a more proactive fire inspection program in place that goes beyond what the state requires."

High Meadows management met with its staff to look at fire safety issues. They removed candles from guest rooms and realized that while the employees knew where fire extinguishers were, guests may not.

Now, big signs point to exits and fire extinguishers. Farber admits that some of her staff feel the signs interrupt the romantic decor, but she's firm that safety trumps ambience any day.

Even before the Clifton fire, guest room fireplaces at High Meadows burned only Duralogs, "because they don't spark," says Farber.

Inn at Monticello owner Norm Lindway says he's always been very safety conscious, but the fire "renewed a caution on our part. We're going to be a little more vigilant."

Someone is always present at the inn, he says. They don't allow candles in rooms, and the smoke alarms are wired so that if one goes off, the other alarms will, too. And if they lose power, there's a battery backup.

"Our insurance carrier is the same as Clifton's," says Lindway. "There's a checklist we have to go over every year."

"The one thing I've always been paranoid about is fire," says Bill Sheehan, who's owned Prospect Hill in Louisa County for 27 years.

He made two changes after Clifton burned: Every fire extinguisher was recharged, and now smoke alarms are checked every day.

Prospect Hill has carbon monoxide detectors in every room and hallway. The fireplaces have screens, the one room that doesn't open to a porch or balcony has a ladder, and "all our windows open," notes Sheehan.

For romantic purposes, he does allow candles in rooms, but they're the metal-encased tea lights "and they burn only for an hour," he says.

Like other owners of properties built in the centuries before building codes, Sheehan is aware of challenges required to keep them safe. "This house was built in 1732 and a lot of the electrical was put in in the '50s and '60s. We replaced all of that. Everything is to code."

"Everything you do in an old house– whether it's maintenance or safety or guest comfort– is trying to infuse the modern into the old," says Farber at the 1832/1882-built High Meadows.

She commiserates with fellow innkeepers Mitchell and Emily Willey, whom she describes as "really good friends" and "caring people."

Hartman in Ithaca echoes that. "Clifton was such a tragedy. I feel bad for the owners and the people who died. I know Mitch Willey really cares, and safety was a big concern."

According to its website, Clifton is accepting reservations for January 2005.

Candles and fireplaces have always been hazards at historic country inns selling romance. No charges will be filed in the blaze that caused the deaths of two women at Clifton Inn last fall.

The owner of Prospect Hill in Louisa County has intensified his safety checks.