CAPE MAY — When Merion Inn owner Vicki Watson woke up Dec. 23, 2010, she was surprised to smell what she thought was candles burning — she was used to the smell of baking muffins coming up into her bedroom from the inn below.
Watson had planned to serve dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas for the first time that year. But when she opened her bedroom door, attempting to find the candles, all she saw was black smoke. She called for her brother, Erik Watson, who also lived above the inn, but there was no answer. Soon, she and her partner, George Mesterhazy, were on the roof in their pajamas.
Several fire departments responded, extinguishing the blaze and pulling Erik, unconscious, from the building. For Watson, though the scars are no longer visible inside the Merion Inn, the fire is tied to a series of events, mostly tragic but some uplifting.
According to officials, the holiday season introduces a series of fire hazards, including space heaters, Christmas trees and fireplaces.
Last December, there were 103 fires in Atlantic County and 30 in Cape May County, according to a report from the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety. Nationwide, each winter there are an average of 945 deaths, 3,825 injuries, and almost $2 billion in property damage caused by fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
“Here’s the problem: One thing is you got the holidays and everybody is coming together,” Atlantic County Fire Marshal Harold Swartz said. “You got people running out of the house to go shopping and leaving pots on the stove, cigarettes in the ashtrays and candles lit that start fires. Two, you got the cold weather coming in, people are using all kinds of heat — portable heaters, electric heaters, kerosine — and this is bad. They don’t read the instructions to keep them away from the flammable things.”
The fire calls pick up just before Christmas and begin to slow at the start of the new year, Swartz said.
“About the middle of January, all the bad chimneys are found, and people found out the right way to use their portable heaters, and they don’t overload,” he said.
Christmas trees are also a fire hazard. He remembers investigating a fire in Pleasantville around the holidays several years ago.
“People were sitting at the table eating and the tree caught fire in the other room. They just got out of the house,” he said. “Trees can burn really bad, and once they take off, they burn like they’re covered in gasoline. Burns one or two rooms out in the house, ruins their whole christmas.”
At the Merion Inn, the fire definitely ruined Christmas — they were unable to serve dinner as planned, and Erik Watson was recovering in the burn unit. But there were bright spots.
“My staff demo’d the ceiling,” she said. “Put the Sheetrock back up. Got it painted. We had local contractors come in. Local electricians. Local plumbers. We had inspectors come in over the weekend. We reopened the following Tuesday, which was amazing, and it was because of my staff. They did all the cleaning. It’s like a family here. They all pitched in and we were able to salvage some of the season.”
The restaurant opened in time for New Year’s Eve. Watson said it smelled like they had a wood-burning stove. Erik Watson eventually recovered and was released from the burn unit. Mesterhazy, a musician, released an album called “After the Fire.” Friends and neighbors welcomed Watson and Mesterhazy into their homes while their apartment above the inn was gutted and repaired.
“I just had so many more friends that I didn’t realize,” Watson said. “George had a gig in San Francisco for two months. I was here with the dogs, and people were inviting me to dinner.”
In 2011, though the apartment was still not livable, the Merion Inn did serve on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Watson called it a success.
In April, on the day they were scheduled to finally return to their home above the inn, Mesterhazy died in his sleep.
“To get out of moving, I’m sure,” Watson said, smiling through tears.
In September, Erik Watson died of smoke inhalation in a small fire in Cape May.
Vicki Watson spoke about how fires have effected her life.
“It makes me know what other people are going through,” she said. “I hadn’t really thought about it much before.”
Merion Inn will serve dinner on all of the holidays again this season. Watson said it will be hard this year: the first without Mesterhazy and her brother.
“I think about loss, but I think about gratitude,” she said. “I think about the staff helping me out, and how lucky I am to have them. It was just amazing. Not just the staff, but the community and the customers.”
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