WILLIAMSTOWN - Ernest Imhoff perched on a third-floor ledge in only pajamas while fire roared through the Delta Kappa Epsilon house at Williams College.
The 20-year-old student, hobbled by his glasses being broken when he rushed from bed to flee, went back and forth between the sub-zero early morning air and the dangerous shelter of his room as firefighters below rushed to rescue him from the blazing 1898 structure.
Raymond Noble, other firefighters and Williams students tried to reach him with a 40-foot ladder, only to find it was just short of freeing the trapped man.
Noble lifted the bottom of the massive ladder and propped it against his chest, adding a few more feet to its span, and he and the rest held it steady while Imhoff shakily made his way down to safety. Imhoff fell some of the way, but suffered only frostbite and smoke inhalation from his ordeal.
The date was Jan. 6, 1959.
These stories and more were shared with a crowd of roughly 60 over the weekend at the Williamstown Historical Museum as part of a lecture on the town's notable fires by Williamstown Fire Department Chief Craig A. Pedercini.
"Noble and Ernie [Imhoff] later became friends," Pedercini said to the packed room at the David and Joyce Milne Public Library on Saturday. "Ernie to this day writes letters of thanks."
The program detailed what is known about the major fires Williamstown has seen, and Pedercini walked attendees through time from the Greylock Hall blaze of 1890 all the way to the 2007 Spring Street fire that claimed the building once home to Subway, the Perfect Blend coffee shop and the Purple Pub. The event was part of the museum's annual series of talks on town history.
Though many of the tales ended with destroyed buildings or lost businesses, dire situations like Imhoff's ended in rescue. The other sagas Pedercini touched on included:
*Lacking an aerial truck to fight structure fires from above, the local fire department often was assisted by North Adams' department. However, in Jan. 11, 1968's fire at the Williams College Kappa Alpha fraternity, a McCarthy's Tree Service truck came to the aid of the department with its aerial lift for pruning trees. This was one of many examples of the community at large pitching in to help battle blazes.
*When fire struck Pine Cobble School on Jan 25, 1970, the department had just bought an aerial ladder truck. The blaze at the school -- then located on the current site of the Milne Library -- demanded the new piece of equipment be put to use with unprecedented speed.
"We were just purchasing our ‘69 LaFrance aerial," Pedercini said. "It had just come into town a few days earlier and it wasn't ours yet. You don't just drive it.
But a firefighter was sent to the Willows Motel -- where the man who had driven the vehicle to town was staying -- to deliver the message that it was time to put the truck to work.
*In 1998, then-Chief Edward M. McGowan's worst fear -- a structure fire on densely developed Spring Street -- came to realization when an electrical blaze broke out in the early morning of March 29.
Though out of town in Fitchburg when Pedercini and the rest of the fire department responded, "McGowan did not give his wife much time to get into that car" to return to Williamstown and the fire scene, according to Pedercini.
"I was there from Fitchburg before the electrical company shut the power off," McGowan, who was in the audience Saturday, said in response.
Seventy-two thousand gallons of water later, the fire had claimed six businesses and six apartments, but was stopped from walking down Spring Street.
Following the presentation, McGowan, who was chief from 1986 to 2002, said hearing the stories, many of which involved him, underscored the progress that has been made in equipment and training for firefighters.
"The difference in equipment is tremendous, not only with trucks and hose lines, but also firefighter protective gear," he said. "You used to put on your gear at the truck on the scene, and some of these guys you saw, the jackets were down to their ankles. They were made of rubber when I started. Now they're fitted, just like when you buy a suit."
Pedercini, who has been chief since 2003 and joined the department in 1988, saw victories in some of the images of his presentation.
"It brings back good memories in a way," he said. "No one likes to have a fire, but when you look back, you can say we had a lot of help from the community and mutual aid, and the end result is the fire went out. You might have lost the building, but you saved the next one. We pride ourselves on protecting property."
Follow Michael J. Foster on Twitter: @NAT_DigitalMike