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`16-ALARM’ FIRE GUTS PORTION OF LANDMARK BROOKLYN HOTEL

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In what would have amounted to a 16-alarm fire if officials counted that high, more than 500 firefighters battled an early morning blaze that gutted a portion of the landmark St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights on Saturday and heavily damaged two buildings that were once part of it, including a 30-story co-op.

Where once a grand staircase and twin pillars led to the front desk of the largest hotel in New York City, only the exterior walls remained of the main entryway on Clark Street.But while hundreds of people had to be evacuated from buildings surrounding the block between Hicks and Henry streets, and Clark and Pineapple streets, there were no serious injuries.

The fire was first reported in a vacant section of the hotel at 3:31 a.m., and at its height three buildings were in flames.

Rushed from their homes by door-pounding firefighters and police officers, residents of the brownstones and smaller apartment buildings - clothed in bathrobes and blankets, T-shirts and shorts - stood staring, some holding their babies in their arms, others recording the scene on video cameras.

"There were sheets of fire coming out of every single window," said Joshua Horowitz, 44, a lawyer whose family, including three children, fled into the street. "You almost didn't want to move, just looking at it; it left you standing there with your mouth open."

A neighbor, Steve Schwartz, wryly noted the parallel to the week's other major conflagration. "It was our own little piece of the Hamptons," he said.

A Fire Department spokesman, Jack Thompson, said the cause of the fire was being investigated by fire marshals, police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The blaze was considered suspicious, officials said, because of how rapidly it spread.

City Councilman Kenneth K. Fisher and his family were routed from their Pineapple Street home shortly after 4 a.m. Once outside, a cloud of burning embers, like millions of fireflies, erupted from the flaming core of the St. George, apparently when several floors collapsed on top of each other.

"That was even more frightening than being evacuated, because at that point we didn't know the extent of it," Fisher said.

Deputy Assistant Chief Steven DeRosa said more than 500 firefighters from 50 engine companies and 27 ladder companies had responded to the equivalent of a 16-alarm blaze. Officially, the department counts only up to five alarms.

The fire, originating in an unused section of the old hotel building in the middle of Clark Street, "dropped down through the shafts in the building so that it was out the windows in the rear, the side and the front," DeRosa said.

With that, he said, "The fire was able to extend to the buildings surrounding it."