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October 28, 2008 3:43 am

Super 8 fire memories

Written by Tribune Staff

Safety always is on Matt McCaslin's mind when he or his family stay at any motel.

“I pay closer attention to where the exits are and try to get rooms on the first floor,” he said on Monday, one year after the Super 8 Motel fire in Powell.

“That's been kind of a major change just for my whole family,” he said.

McCaslin, of the Powell Police Department, helped pull Jason Ascheman of Billings from the Super 8 Motel just in time to save his life as the motel burned during the early-morning hours of Oct. 27, 2007.

“I can still see Mr. Ascheman's face as we got him out of the motel,” he said.

He remembers other things as well.

“I still can see vividly the smoke and the people that were around as we were trying to get them out of windows. I still see a lot of those things.”

The Powell Volunteer Fire Department was called to the fire at 2:28 a.m. The fire started in a room on the northwest side of the building.

Powell Fire Chief Joey Darrah recounted the events shortly afterward:

“When I got there ... I could hear people screaming and see them jumping out of windows on the second floor.

Immediately, I knew we have people who can't get out of the building because conditions in the hallway have deteriorated enough that they don't want to try getting out that way.”

Thirty-two people initially could not be accounted for, and emergency responders set up a makeshift morgue in case it was needed.

But, as people were located, that number gradually was narrowed down to just one: Rhonda Cox of Chugwater. Her body was found later that day in the motel's laundry room. Her husband, Don, had been rescued from the hallway by firefighters Doug Leichner and Mike Meeker earlier after he succumbed to smoke inhalation.

Despite a months-long investigation, the cause of the fire remains undetermined. It started in a room occupied by a woman who reportedly was drunk when the fire ignited.

A report released in March by the Wyoming Fire Marshal's office said the fire might have started in a chair in that room, but that area of the room burned so completely that can't be determined for sure.

According to the report, the woman provided conflicting statements about the cause of the fire. They varied from her boyfriend setting the fire to kill her to her not knowing anything about it.

McCaslin, Leichner and Meeker were among five people recognized by the city of Powell for their heroism during the fire.

Another was John Michael Spillan, the Super 8 night clerk who risked his own life as he ran through smoke-filled halls while knocking on doors throughout the motel to warn sleeping guests.

Spillan, who is credited with saving multiple lives, no longer lives in Powell.

The other honoree was police dispatcher Twila Segura, who received a commendation for her deft management of radio traffic on multiple channels.

McCaslin said little things occasionally will trigger memories of the Super 8 fire.

“I'll go on fire calls, and some of the sights and smells that you come across will make you think of that night,” he said. “But it's difficult to put those things into words.”

McCaslin said he thinks about Ascheman often.

“Their first child should have been born somewhere around the end of March,” he said.

That child would not have had a father if McCaslin had not pulled Ascheman out of the smoking building.

McCaslin also remembers the community that pulled together to help during and after the fire.

“I was extremely proud of the people of Powell and everybody who pulled together to help out all the guests of the Super 8,” he said. That included owners of other motels who provided places for displaced guests to stay as well as people who brought food and drinks for guests and emergency responders, he said.

“When you have an incident like that, it really can show the heart of the community — what they're capable of and how well they can band together to really do what needs to be done and take care of everybody,” McCaslin said.