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Saranac Lake firefighter Preston Burl carries 4-year-old Ruth King after rescuing her from a fire that destroyed the St. Regis Hotel on Jan. 14, 1964. Photo: <em>Adirondack Daily Enterprise</em>
Saranac Lake firefighter Preston Burl carries 4-year-old Ruth King after rescuing her from a fire that destroyed the St. Regis Hotel on Jan. 14, 1964. Photo: Adirondack Daily Enterprise

A thank-you, just in time

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Nearly 50 years after a four-and-a-half-year-old girl leaped from a burning Saranac Lake hotel and into the arms of a firefighter, Ruth King finally learned the name of the man she calls her hero.

King now lives in Florida. She's a blues singer and songwriter. She recently got to talk over the phone with Preston Burl, the firefighter who rescued her on that cold January day in 1964. Sadly, Burl died of lung cancer just days after the two reconnected.

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Reported by

Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

It was just after 8 a.m. and bitter cold on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 1964, when fire broke out in the basement of the St. Regis Hotel.

Ruth King remembers waking up in bed with her mother, who was working as a jazz singer at the hotel. They were in a room on building’s fifth floor that was quickly filling up with smoke.

Smoke pours from the St. Regis Hotel in Saranac Lake, which was consumed by fire on Jan. 14, 1964, in this image taken from the April 1964 cover of <em>Fire Engineering</em> magazine. Photo courtesy Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department
Smoke pours from the St. Regis Hotel in Saranac Lake, which was consumed by fire on Jan. 14, 1964, in this image taken from the April 1964 cover of Fire Engineering magazine. Photo courtesy Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department
"I remember her carrying me out the hallway to go to the elevator or the stairs. The elevator was hot to her touch and the stairs had fire coming up, so we closed the door and we went back to the room."

King said her mother dropped her purse out the window so firefighters knew where they were. The firemen extended a ladder toward the window, but it couldn’t reach high enough.

"Then she said, 'I'm going to jump,' and she told me to hold around her neck. And she did, and when she did, she felt the ladder rungs on her hands and she clasped on and that ladder fell back against the building, and we were dangling. As she tried to move up to the top of that ladder, I fell off."

King fell right into the arms of Saranac Lake firefighter Preston Burl, who had been watching from below.

"I do remember hitting his arms," King said. "I remember the abrupt landing, but I kept passing out. And  I remember he also put me in the front of a station wagon, and that’s all I remember till I was in the hospital."

King was treated for smoke inhalation and frostbite.

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise devoted most of the front page that day to the blaze, which completely destroyed the hotel.  One of the lead pictures on that front page was of Preston Burl carrying a young Ruth King to safety.

Barbara Burl, Preston Burl's wife of 62 years, recalled the conversation she had with her husband after he came home that day.

"I said, 'Did everybody get out alright?' He said, 'Oh yeah. I caught a little girl.' I said, 'What happened?' I got all excited. He said, 'She was on the back of the ladder with her mother, and she fell, and I caught her.' That was the way he was. The fire department was his life after his famly"

Over the years, the St. Regis Hotel fire is something the Burl family talked about from time to time, according to Thalene Bates, one of Preston and Barbara Burl's six children.

"When we'd get the (Enterprise) picture out, we'd be like, 'Do you know who this is? Did you ever hear from her?' He was like, 'No. I have no idea who she is, where she is, whatever happened.'"

Ruth King. Photo provided by subject
Ruth King. Photo provided by subject
King, now a successful musician and a regular at the House of Blues in Orlando, said she never knew who the man was who saved her that day, but she’s always carried a special place in her heart for firefighters and first responders.

“I thank every firefighter because I never knew who caught me,” she said. “I can’t think him, so let me thank every one I meet, and all my life I’ve been doing that.”

This summer, King and a friend were planning a tribute concert for first responders. That’s when the series of events that would finally put her in touch with Preston Burl began to unfold.

A reporter for the Orlando Sentinel interviewed King about the tribute concert, and King repeated the story about being rescued from a hotel fire in Saranac Lake. An online version of the story was sent to Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley, who emailed King to see if she'd be willing to do an interview.

"The next day, Peter emails me, and  tells me he knows the name of the man (who rescued her), gives me his name, Preston Burl, says he still might be alive and that there’s a photograph that was in the paper back in 1964," King said.

After she was emailed Burl's phone number, King said she called it "immediately."

Barbara Burl answered the phone that morning.

Preston Burl. Photo provided by the Burl family
Preston Burl. Photo provided by the Burl family
"I said 'Who is this,'" said Barbara Burl. "She said, 'This is the little girl he saved.' And I thought, 'Oh my God.' He took the phone and talked to her. By the time he got off the phone, he had tears in his eyes.”

Ruth King said Burl was chipper and making jokes throughout the 10 to 15 minute conversation. Burl thanked her for remembering him. King said she didn’t realize until later how sick he was.

Preston Burl was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2012. At the time King called, Burl’s daughter said her father was getting discouraged by the effects of the cancer spreading and the side effects of his treatments.

"When she called, he got caught up in the excitement of it," Bates said. "We checked out her website. It was exciting. We were sending  emails. She was sending them back, and we were reading them to him. It gave him something else to focus on, and he was excited about it."

Preston Burl died on Sept. 11., just days after he finally was reunited with Ruth King. He was 80 years old.

Barbara Burl said she believes the timing of King's reconnection with her husband wasn't just coincidental.

"I think God had a part in it; I really do," she said.

King said she was grateful to have had the chance to talk to her hero, even if it was for just a few minutes.

"It’s unbelievable," King said. "It is beyond anything I can imagine. It's just like falling out of a four-story building and being caught. It's just as amazing as that. He waited 50 years for a thank-you. That was too long to wait, but I didn't know who he was or where he was."

This story was produced by Adirondack Daily Enterprise reporter Chris Knight, who freelances for NCPR courtesy of ADE.  You can read his stories — and the newspaper's other coverage of the Adirondack region — by clicking here.

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