HARTFORD, Conn. — A massive three-alarm fire tore through The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp late Friday afternoon in Ashford, destroying several main camp buildings before firefighters made a last stand to save the iconic dining hall and infirmary.
No one was at the camp at the time of the fire and no one was injured, including firefighters battling both the flames and the icy conditions their hoses created.
An automatic fire alarm alerted officials just before 5 p.m. and witnesses soon began calling in reports of a huge column of smoke and flames on the campgrounds, fire officials said late Friday night. Crews from several surrounding towns descended on the site and found the set of wood-frame buildings in the heart of the campgrounds ablaze.
Firefighters spent about 90 minutes containing and extinguishing the bulk of the fire, blocking it from devouring the central dining hall.
“It was a heavy, heavy fire,” Ashford Deputy Fire Chief Tom Borgman told reporters late Friday. “I came in from the back way — there’s a back entrance, we have several water sources for the department — and that section of the structure was burning pretty hard. That part was close to the dining hall, it was very hard work that saved that.”
The fire still caused immense damage, however and Camp CEO James Canton confirmed the Arts & Crafts, Woodshop, Cooking Zone and Camp Store buildings were all destroyed. He praised firefighters for their fast response in a written statement issued while smoke was still billowing into the night sky at the scene.
“Although the cause of the fire is unknown at this time, what is known is that The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is a community devoted to hope and healing,” Canton said. “We will get through this in the way that we always have and always will — as a family.”
Firefighters remained at the campgrounds late Friday night extinguishing hotspots and combing through the wreckage for evidence of what started the fire. State fire marshals and federal agents from the FBI and ATF also responded to the scene to help investigate.
It was not immediately clear what sparked the fire, officials said. State police Sgt. Paul Makuc, of the Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit, noted it is “too early to say” whether the fire was suspicious and that investigators are considering all leads. He added the help from federal officials was not unusual for such a case.
Founded by legendary actor and philanthropist Paul Newman, the nonprofit camp has offered summer programs for thousands of seriously ill children each year since its founding in 1988.
The old Western style campgrounds were inspired by Newman’s famed “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and its programs are designed to provide a safe summer camp experience for children who could not attend typical camps due to serious medical or physical limitations. Instead, the camp’s advanced medical capabilities and accessibility centered programs give those children a chance to participate in many traditional outdoors and arts activities and make friends with other children who understand their unique challenges.
“We were devastated to hear about the fire at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp,” read a statement from Newman’s Own Foundation, another of the actor’s famed nonprofit ventures. “Our hearts go out to the camp community. Newman’s Own will continue to be there to support The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp through this crisis.”
In addition to the children who attend, the camp has become equally as important to the thousands of volunteers who have worked there over the years and as many as 4,000 volunteers now pitch in to its litany of on- and off-site programs every year.
For almost 20 years, the camp has run a Hospital Outreach Program to bring its activities and a touch of joy to children who are unable to make it to Ashford in person. The outreach program now has 40 partnerships in 40 locations across the Northeast and now has regional offices in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
The Hole in the Wall camp was among the many programs derailed last summer by the COVID-19 pandemic and staff decided early last spring to cancel its programs, not only for the safety of would-be campers but so that its medical volunteers could focus on the response to the virus, camp leaders said at the time.
Instead, the camp turned itself into a virtual powerhouse, giving more than 500 campers online alternative programs and several dozen families the opportunity to participate in the traditional opening campfire and stage night during virtual family weekends, the group said. It also partnered with 40 hospitals to provide programming on their closed-circuit televisions, sent more than 100 care packages to families who had planned to attend and launched a mailing series to send materials directly to children.
The organization had not announced a specific fundraiser in the wake of the fire but does accept donations online at www.holeinthewallgang.org/get-involved.
Story by Zach Murdock.