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Historic Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada, Florida Closes Indefinitely Following
 New Year's Eve Fire; The Biggest Blaze in the Keys in 20 Years, No Injuries


By Cammy Clark, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 2, 2009 - Jeff and Katie Davison of England had a wedding they will never forget: a beautiful ceremony at Spa Island, a sunset cruise and dinner -- with a raging fire causing significant damage at their hotel.

As they finished dinner on New Year's Eve, the main building of the prestigious Cheeca Lodge & Spa caught fire and sent guests and staff running for their lives.

After hearing the words "Fire, fire" at their wedding dinner, the newlyweds gathered their 13 guests and fled.

It wasn't just any fire. It was the biggest blaze in the Keys in 20 years, according to Islamorada Fire Chief William Wagner.

"It's not like high-rises in Miami. But for us in the Keys, a four-story building is big for our small fire departments," he said.

Resort officials on Thursday officially closed the entire 199-room resort indefinitely while repairs are made.

More than 80 firefighters from departments from Marathon in the Middle Keys to South Miami-Dade responded to the blaze that began around 9:45 p.m. in the front of the hotel.

"I'm just glad everybody got out safely," said guest Vicki Lehrhoff of Virginia. "No casualties. That's a miracle."

Cheryl Andrews, spokeswoman for the Cheeca Lodge & Spa, said there were no reported injuries. Guests who occupied all 49 rooms of the main building were quickly evacuated.

It was too early to assess financial damage to the upscale resort, located on 27 acres along the Atlantic Ocean, Andrews said.

WELL-KNOWN PLACE

The resort is more than six decades old and is home to the well-known George H.W. Bush Bonefish Tournament. The hotel has hosted a stellar guest list including former Presidents Harry S Truman and George H.W. Bush, as well as legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Many of the priceless photos and other mementoes had been removed from the main building and stored elsewhere during recent renovations.

Several guests claimed it took an hour for firetrucks to be able to access water. But Wagner disputed this, saying the hotel's sprinkler system worked well and prevented an even worse fire.

OTHER LODGING SCARCE

Many guests fled with just the clothes on their backs and were forced to find other accommodations on New Year's Eve, when many Keys hotels are full.

Many returned to the hotel Thursday morning, wearing the same formal attire from New Year's Eve. Newlywed Katie Davison was still in her wedding dress.

Returning guests found about 25 firefighters still working on "hot spots" in the roof area more than 15 hours after the fire erupted.

Guests recalled their fright.

"We grabbed our kids and ran out," said Mike Hughes of Naples, who was staying in a room on the second floor, near where the fire began. "Embers were falling on our heads and I was worried our clothing would catch on fire. It was terrifying."

Fire officials said the blaze started when embers, perhaps from a cigarette or from fireworks, landed on a thatched awning between the second and third floors of the main building.

The embers ignited the main building and blew other embers onto the tiki hut, which also caught fireFire officials have ruled out arson.

At the start of the blaze, the hotel's upscale restaurant, Atlantic's Edge, was packed with diners and the nearby swimming pool was filled with children.

'WE SAW THE FLAMES'

"We were just seated at 9:30 in the main dining room for the New Year's Eve thing when the fire alarm went off," said guest Anthony Conselice. "At first we thought it was a false alarm, but then we saw the flames."

"This is kind of crazy," said Matt Bloom of Boca Raton, who arrived Thursday to the surprise news of the fire.

The Davisons had yet another reason to remember their big day. Instead of the honeymoon suite, they spent their wedding night on the floor of a friend's hotel room.

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To see more of The Miami Herald or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Miami Herald

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