Lucky escape for hotel occupants

FOUR children, 16 adults including three cleaners, Henry the lorikeet, and Wilbur the Maltese cross Jack Russell.

They are the ones who cheated death when a $1 million fire ravaged the iconic Coffs Hotel early yesterday.

Their dramatic ordeal has touched the hearts of a stunned community. A community still reeling from the fact one of the city's most popular watering holes very nearly burned to the ground.

Management has suspended normal trading ? except the bottle shop until at least Monday when private investigators and insurance assessors arrive to discuss the situation. Beer garden renovations due to start after the Coffs Cup now appear unlikely in the short term.

Whether it was down a fire ladder, through windows or down stairs, occupants fled the quickest and best way they could while battling choking smoke and ferocious heat.

They huddled on the footpath in the freezing cold, their discomfort tempered by the realisation they were lucky to be alive. The only casualties were 10 goldfish when their tank exploded.

The Chelsea Motor Inn took in the weary survivors and gave them a hearty breakfast, while the Anglican Opportunity Shop saved the day with clothing.

Sydney-based fire investigators, with accelerant sniffer dog, Ellie and local firefighters and forensics police ? spent yesterday trying to determine the cause of the blaze.

It appears to have started in the now gutted office and quickly spread through the foyer and charged up the stairs.

The back bar is severely fire-damaged, the middle room only slightly affected, and luckily, the Shamrock Bar was only mildly smoke-stricken. However, up-stairs rooms copped fire and smoke damage.

The intense heat melted ceilings, televisions, the sound system and cabling, while the extent of structural damage remains unclear.

Licensee Marty Phillips is a much-loved character. Larger than life, much like his pub.

As he took in the destruction yesterday, his despair was palpable, but so, too, was his resolve to get hotel operations back to normal as soon as feasible.

He got word something was up after 5.17am ? that's when alarms pierced the pre-dawn.

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