Old Structure Causes Unique Problems for Firefighters

By: Bob Yarbrough
By: Bob Yarbrough

Knoxville (WVLT) – 911 reports of the first fire came about 1:15 a.m. Wednesday morning, many of the phone calls from residents of the nearby Sterchi Building condos who say they smelled smoke, looked outside their windows, and saw flames quickly getting out of control.

"Pretty much it was all coming out the windows at first. Then as it expanded it started coming out of the roof. About an hour after it started, the whole east wall collapsed, it was a lot of heat, a lot of smoke, pretty intense," says eyewitness Jay Baird.

Because of wind-blown embers and smoke, the Sterchi Building was evacuated until firefighters contained the blaze at about 3:00 a.m. At least two back walls and one front wall of the warehouse had collapsed.

For the next four hours, crews worked mostly on stubborn hot spots, sections of the building that continued to flame up from time to time.

Then, just before 7:00 a.m. and seemingly out of nowhere, a second fire ignited and blew through the top level of the building's middle section, quickly becoming a three alarm fight and quickly endangering the lives of four firefighters.

"They were in a lot of danger. It was very serious, we liked to have lost them," Knox County Assistant Chief Tommy Stuart says.

Fire crews then went into defense mode, protecting nearby buildings and condos. Choosing to stand back and let the fire burn itself down.

And soon, when the time is right, the fire crews will go into great detail and rehash the day's events with one another.

"Oh yeah, every fire has a critique. Whether it's in the firehouse around the kitchen table or if it's an organized critique with all the companies involved, see what we did, how well we did, what could have been done better," says Knox County Fire Captain Jeff Kerley.

The C.M. McClung warehouses have a long history, built in the 1890's. They've also been on Knoxville's list of 15 fragile structures of 2006.

This is unfortunately, what happens when old buildings like these burn, the walls collapse.

In fact, bricks from one wall at the McClung Warehouse fell on the Knoxville Fire Department's Ladder Truck 3.

The firefighters around it did get a warning before the bricks fell. All of them were okay.

No word yet, however, on the extent of damage to the fire truck.

The last large fire in Downtown Knoxville happened two years ago this month.

On February 28th, 2005, fire destroyed the Crimson Building on the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill.

Seven residences located in the building were also destroyed.

No one was hurt in the fire, but it took firefighters more than eight hours to bring it under control.

Investigators were able to rule out arson, but could not pinpoint a cause.

And of course, there was the Fire of 1897, dubbed the "Million Dollar Fire," because the damage to several major buildings along Gay Street was valued at more than one million dollars in 1897 money. That fire occurred four years after the C.M. McClung Warehouses were constructed in 1893.


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