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THE FIRE DEPARTMENT OF SALISBURY, NORTH CAROLINA A Historical Perspective DOCUMENT #2 TABLE OF CONTENTS CHAPTER ...................... TITLE......................................................................................................... PAGE TWELVE ........................ THE NEVERENDING WAR ............................................................................ 3 2 CHAPTER TWELVE THE NEVERENDING WAR The job of firefighting is best described as "like being in a military battle with fire as the enemy." Analogies between the military and the fire service are ever present. Firefighters train constantly for that inevitable battle just as soldiers train for their conflicts. The battles themselves have some strange parallels. Soldiers can handle small skirmishes with single companies, just as single fire companies handle the smaller single-family dwelling fires. However, larger military operations require huge cannons to soften up the enemy before the ground troops move in. Likewise, an extensive fire situation may require the use of deck guns to knock down the fire to a point manageable by hand lines. No doubt a continuing conflict, we find ourselves embroiled in a "war" that began with the first fire in Salisbury. Of course, no record of this one exists, but something must have happened in 1793 to necessitate the adoption of the ordinance requiring "leather buckets". Unfortunately, the fire service is laced with a history of reaction more than proaction. In other words, something bad happens, and steps are taken to keep it from happening again. There are few cities whose history have not been altered by disasters of one kind or another: flood, disease, war, and, of course, fire. The latter can have the most tragic impact of all. When destructive flames leap into the air, lives and more are at stake. Untold years of cultural accomplishment can be snuffed out in mere minutes. The significance of such human, intellectual and artistic tragedy is felt long after the smoke has dissipated and the rubble cleared away. But, ironically, a disastrous conflagration somehow enriches a community's heritage and adds yet another chapter to its history, often a story of heroism and the durability of the human spirit. Salisbury has been fortunate in that the kind of holocausts that have reduced several other North Carolina cities to ashes have not occurred here, although some have erupted that had that kind of awful potential. There was, for example, the fire on the square in 1855 that destroyed the old Pinkney and Chambers store and several adjoining buildings. The area came to be known as the "burnt district" until 1858, when the drug store structure was built. That was neither to be the last, nor the worst, fire to hit the central business district. The pre-dawn hours of early November, 1907, witnessed the destruction of what many folks called "the finest hotel in western North Carolina". The Mansion House was located on the northwest corner of the Square facing West Innes Street. Although the Salisbury Post and historians dispute its actual age, the structure was at least 80 years old, maybe as much as 125 years. It had been expanded at least three times. Many colorful personalities had reportedly stayed at the huge hostelry including George Washington. By the time it burned, the Mansion House was a large, three-story building, occupying all the ground on which the Wallace Building (now the Plaza) was later built. On the second-floor was a wide piazza, which was supported by large pillars and extended over the sidewalk on Innes Street. They sheltered several stores on street level. The second floor and part of the third served as apartments for small families or for single men. Large stables were located out back offering horses for hire or board for a traveler's horse. The fire was discovered early on November 8, 1907, by two policemen walking their beats on West Fisher Street. Officers B. J. Shuping and W. Julian were a block from the Mansion House when they saw flame leap up from the top of the building. After running to the Square, Officer Shuping entered the building to arouse the occupants while Officer Julian ran to City Hall to give the alarm. Officer Shuping made several courageous attempts at rescue and warning of occupants. One man, bedridden for weeks, was rescued by a bank teller and a merchant. By this time the entire roof of the building was ablaze and the flames, lifted sky-high, were seen for "a dozen blocks around". Someone had noticed that a "Mrs. Suiter" had not come down. So Alderman J. V. Wallace, who until the week before had been chief of the fire department, found a ladder and climbed quickly to the porch. Running along the second floor, he found Mrs. Suiter dazed by the smoke on the porch and unable to find her way. He directed her to the ladder and, after seeing her safely to the ground, returned to the porch where another lady also occupied a room on the second floor and was groping her way through the smoke, "pathetic and helpless". Just as she reached the ground, the rest of the building crashed and flames spread to every part of the house, which was entirely of wood and dry as powder. The Mansion House was 3 gone. In its place stands the seven-story Plaza, once known as the Wallace Building and Grubb Building, which was built in 1908. In 1909, a blaze in the 200 block of South Main Street threatened to destroy the opulent Empire Hotel. It started in a department store at the corner of South Main and West Bank streets, and quickly spread. R.H. Pender, an out-of-towner who decided on the spur of the moment to join the fire fighting effort, met his death when he fell off a horse-drawn wagon that had been dispatched to the fire station for an additional hose. He was run over by a trailing wagon. Meanwhile, guests at the Empire had begun to panic and were throwing their belongings to the street from upper-floor windows. Firemen A. P. Hartline and Lon Bradshaw saved the day by discovering an effective way of throwing water on the blaze from the top of a building off Bank Street. The Empire and the remainder of the block was saved. Three years later fire destroyed the Salisbury Post, then located on the second floor of the old Meroney Theatre in the 100 block of North Main. The heat was so intense that firemen could get no closer than the opposite side of the street. The front wall of the building collapsed and machinery on the second floor melted. The hero of that fire, which broke out around midnight, was the fire department's old steam engine, which was brought only in the direst of emergencies. The Meroney building was a total loss but the old engine had enough pressure to wet down adjoining structures and thus saved them from destruction. Six weeks later, J.H. Hurley bought the Post. All he had then was the name. It is amazing that the 1923 fire that heavily damaged a building housing several businesses at Main and Fisher streets did not result in a major disaster. The fire started in Frank Cline's Southern Footwear on the third floor, and when firemen arrived, they could do little but watch in horror. They had no ladders. An hour passed before some ladders owned by Duke Power Co. were brought to the scene. One ladder teetered as a fireman scurried up. He fell to the street and suffered a broken arm. Several hours and 750,000 gallons of water later, the blaze was under control. Damages totaled $47,000. The old Victory Theatre was hit by fire on three different occasions: in 1928, 1947, and 1956. It was never destroyed by flames, but was temporarily closed on all three occasions. The most disastrous fire in the city's history occurred in the central business district. At 1:30 a.m. on April 27, 1964, policeman Buddy Evans saw flames at the rear of Underwood's in the 100 block of South Main. "The whole thing went poof before I could finish my call to headquarters," he was to say later. Before sunrise, Underwood's, McLellan's Variety Store and the W.H. Leonard Jewelry Store were destroyed, and the Oestreicher-Winner Department Store was severely damaged. At one time the flames threatened the entire block, and only a change in wind direction kept the fire from spreading over onto West Innes Street. Four firemen on the roof on Underwood's barely escaped death when the building literally exploded beneath them. They were rescued by an aerial truck. Said one of the men, "I've never been to hell and that's as close as I want to come. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt like screaming." Over 100 firemen from five departments poured 4 million gallons of water on the blaze. By 6 a.m., when a large number of spectators began to converge on downtown, the National Guard had to be called in to control the crowd. Firemen finally halted the progress of the inferno, but over $1 million in property damage was done. Flames erupted on South Main again a scant 10 weeks later, this time at Woody's Men's Store in the 100 block. Damages totaled $22,000. Before the 1964 fire, the 1941 blaze at Haden's Economy Auto and Tire Co. at Innes and Lee Streets may have been the most spectacular in the city's history. Around 5 p.m. on June 7, a worker carelessly flipped a match. Minutes later, small explosions began occurring in rapid succession and brick walls began tumbling into the street. The fire raged on through the night. As radio announcers delivered live coverage from the roof of the Yadkin Hotel, intense heat drove spectators a block from the scene. The fire was contained in the early morning hours, but damages totaled near $100,000. The foul smell of burnt tire rubber settled over the city for days to come. The 1947 blaze at the Simpson-Peacock Warehouse on North Lee Street was extinguished in less than a half hour, but resulted in a whopping $100,000 in property damage. A thousand cases of matches had been stored in the building a few hours before the fire broke out, and when the flames hit the matches a flash fire instantly gutted the building. The big downtown conflagration of 1964 was not Salisbury's first million-dollar fire. That occurred four years earlier when flames destroyed a new office building at Salisbury Lumber Co. on South Railroad Street. Ironically, Arey Brick and Lumber Co. was leveled by fire at the same location 21 years later. 4 On March 3, 1968, a car hit a gas main near the Parrish Bakeries in south Salisbury. Sparks touched off an explosion, which blasted away portions of the plant's rear brick wall and shattered windows all along Klumac Road. Firemen were reluctant to try to extinguish the gas-fed inferno for fear the leaking propane would back up in the line and touch off another explosion, but the blaze was finally contained after several hours. Another devastating fire hit the downtown area in 1977 heavily damaging the Belk-Harry building and its merchandise during the peak Easter shopping time. Nobody was injured in the fire, which broke out before 5:30 p.m. April 1, 1977. Assistant Manager Clarence Harris at first thought it was an April Fool's joke when Sam Robbins ran in the back door and yelled, "The store's on fire!" It was no joke. The fire started in the marking and receiving room in the basement, and firemen had to grope in dense, black smoke. Unable to reach the fire in the intense heat, firemen used a high-expansion foam generator to eventually smother the fire. Fire and water damage was limited to the basement, but smoke damage was throughout the store. Merchandise damage and loss was put at better than $1 million and some $200,000 was spent to remodel the store and repair the damage. In that busy spring buying season, the loss of business from Easter shoppers could probably not be calculated. An early morning fire on February 25, 1977, extensively damaged Lilly's Chapel Holiness Church at Craige and Thomas Streets. Longtime custodian Justis Hargrave, then 86, was saddened by the blaze in the church he had tended for many years, reports said. Three days before Christmas of 1977, a motorist spotted flames pouring from the Office Lounge at 106 West Innes Street on the ground floor of the Wallace Building. Firemen said the sturdy structure of the building prevented the fire from being a downtown catastrophe. The blaze, reported about an hour after closing time, was believed to have been started from faulty wiring of one of the pinball machines. The beer supply, according to the owner, was rendered useless. A second similar fire occurred in the same building section on January 31, 1980. However, the business had a different name: Dante's. Fire has taken a heavy toll of school buildings over the years. Monroe Street School was damaged to the tune of $45,000 in 1951. On March 1, 1978, the art department and metal shop at Salisbury High School were heavily damaged by fire that broke out about 3 a.m. Though the damage was considerable, school officials expressed relief that the fire didn't happen with students in the building. Livingstone College has sustained fire damage on many occasions, especially around the turn of the century when wood stoves were still in use in dormitories. Stanford Seminary was destroyed during that era. The college chapel might have been saved in 1958 were it for the fact that the closest hydrant was over a block from the burning building. In the long run, however, the chapel fire may have been a blessing in disguise, for it encouraged financial contributions to Livingstone. Fire threatened to spread throughout Catawba College's music building on November 24, 1975. It was contained by an extensive overhaul effort to the walls and attic. Another fire occurred in Catawba College's Woodson Dormitory on December 16, 1991. This fire was contained to one room, but necessitated the evacuation of the entire four-story building. A fire in two Knox Jr. High classrooms caused $20,000 damage on October 26, 1982. The fires were discovered by the custodian in the 600 and 700 buildings and had almost self-extinguished when firemen arrived. Arson was suspected. The Yadkin House was a vacant and un-renovated hotel on March 21, 1980 when a vagrant set a fire in the first floor lobby. The fire had quickly spread to upper floors when firefighters reached the scene. A dual fire attack from the first and second floor saved the structure. In 1995, it has been renovated and serves as apartment units for senior citizens. Three downtown fires occurred strangely within a year of each other. 5 Fire stations are not immune to the enemy. On August 26, 1980 the old firehouse on South Lee Street burst into flames. Offensive and defensive strategy played a part in bringing the fire under control. The old station had been converted to a restaurant with historical (firehouse oriented) atmosphere. A dollar loss estimate was difficult due to the many antiques held within the walls. In 1995, the building, again renovated, still stands and is currently a flower shop. The day after the old firehouse burned, a major fire occurred at the Endicott Johnson shoe store in the 100 block of South Main. The fire began in the back of the store and, fed by paper boxes and such, spread rapidly to the second floor, through the roof, and eventually into Underwood's. It took firefighters more than 90 minutes to control the fire, which could have taken a huge chunk of real estate. The three-alarm fire was the largest downtown blaze since 1964. On September 28, 1980, another fire occurred just around the corner from Endicott-Johnson's. A fire in the rear of the Simply Good Food Store in the 100 block of East Fisher had potential to spread both vertically and horizontally. Fire attack from the front and rear quickly doused this one, suspected to have begun by an electrical short. The following year another downtown fire broke out. On July 22, 1981, fire was discovered at the rear of the Carolina Waterbed store in the 200 block of South Main. Although fire spread was minimal, the store was part of the old Empire Hotel and potential was high. The fire, contained at the first floor, had spread somewhat to the second floor before extensive chopping and wetting-down could allow the firefighters a good night's sleep. An explosion rocked downtown on midnight of September 8, 1983, when the Bamby Bakery Warehouse garage suffered the results of a propane gas leak. Several firefighters at headquarters station reported hearing the blast shortly before the first box alarm was received. Although they had very little fire to contend with, the firefighters were uncertain at first of just what had caused the blast. As it turned out, the leak had come from a saddle tank of a propane-powered delivery truck. A much larger detonation occurred on September 21, 1983. Proctor Chemical Co. on Lumber Street had incurred an unusual reaction had occurred in the processing facility, which caused the overpressured event. A hazardous-material fire resulted in barrels of various chemicals. Flames shot 200 feet into the air, and black smoke could be seen for miles around. At the height of the fire, firefighters feared that two 10,000-gallon storage tanks might explode. An aggressive effort brought the fire to its knees, but not before sending 14 firefighters to the hospital complaining of various injuries (mostly from contact with chemical irritant). Surrounding neighborhoods were evacuated as volunteer mutual aid was called in to assist the Salisbury firefighters. Damage was over $3 million dollars. Probably the most controversial fire of recent times occurred on December 1, 1984. The late Sidney Blackmer, a local citizen who had become a movie star, once lived in the large Federal-style two-story, wood-framed mansion at 106 S. Fulton Street. His wife still lived there, and (according to her) had dropped a log from the fireplace that Saturday morning around 9 a.m. By the time firefighters were notified of the problem, 40 minutes had elapsed. Arriving firefighters found heavy, black smoke issuing from the attic and a smoke-charged second floor. As the aerial ladder was positioned on one side to ventilate the roof, an interior attack began from the front. Inside, firefighters encountered tremendous storage clutter and, at times, were virtually lost. As the second-floor flashed, the roof ventilation was complete. The disoriented firefighters were removed from the interior. The aerial ladder was set-up for water tower operation as the fireground went defensive. Unaware of the firefighters inside the house, concerned citizens had assumed a delay of water when the water tower finally delivered its stream. Hence a media-fed controversy resulted in a complete department assessment. The department passed the assessment with flying colors. This fire marked the first real test of the new "Incident Command System" utilizing multi-alarm staging and centralized command. By the way, the Blackmer house still stands in 1995, vacant and eerily waiting for something else to happen. A fire destroyed Eagle's Lounge, a favorite south-side nightspot, on April 6, 1985. Two firefighters received minor injuries in that fight at 1414 South Fulton Street. On the morning of August 21, 1985, another explosion hit a chemical plant. The National Starch Plant on Cedar Springs Road received damage to a reactor assembly, and two of its employees were injured. Firefighters were able to get quick control of the scene, and no sustained fire followed the blast. Fortunately, our two major hospitals have escaped serious fires. But on January 5, 1986, two fires of similar nature occurred almost simultaneously at both hospitals. Rowan Memorial Hospital and the Veteran Administration Medical Center sustained fire damage to patient rooms from burning mattresses. The most serious damage occurred at Rowan where smoke caused 6 evacuations on both the first and second floor (the fire being on the second). Damages were listed at $4,000 for Rowan; $1,000 for the VA. Another fire broke out at the VA Medical Center on April 11, 1986. This time, the damage was not in a patient room, but was instead in Building 13, a structure being used to house trainees. One VA employee was injured. Firefighters contained this fire to one room. Back-to-back fires occurred on the night of November 20, 1986. A two-story, wood-frame structure was destroyed by fire at 302 East Fisher. One civilian fatality resulted from the blaze. Immediately following that fire, a fully involved structure was reported at 709 South Fulton. This house was a total loss, but there were at least no personal injuries. A city firefighter (Tony Hager) received honors for rescuing a man from a swollen creek on March 1, 1987. The man, clinging from a tree limb, was spotted by passing motorist. The fire department was notified, and a successful rescue effort evolved with Hager tied to ropes and bringing the man to shore. A spectacular fire occurred at the old Wormser Mill off Klumac Road on June 27, 1987. The two-story structure's second floor was fully involved as firefighters were dispatched. Smoke could easily be seen from Central Station as firefighters responded. A defensive strategy with master streams and hand-lines kept the fire from spreading to a nearby mill structure. Damage was estimated at $150,000. A three-alarm blaze hit the Thompson Screen Printing Co. at Walnut Street on August 30, 1987. Five firefighters were injured at this fire; four from smoke inhalation, the fifth hurt his knee. A Lincoln Park apartment complex suffered major fire damage on December 10, 1987. Eight units were damaged, although the structure was essentially saved enough to be restored later. Winds hampered efforts to head off the fire. A "trench cut" was performed on the roof which led to a successful containment. Twenty-seven people were left homeless. The Salisbury Marble and Granite Company at 1305 South Main Street was virtually destroyed by fire on January 18, 1989. Defensive master streams were employed to bring this fire to an end. The company, in business since 1926, has since reopened in the same location. Another explosion ripped the National Starch Co. at Cedar Springs Road on April 28, 1989. The blast injured one plant employee and sent a cloud of toxic gas into the air. There was no fire for firefighters to worry with, but the risk of hazardous materials was enough reason for concern. Food Lion lost one of its stores to fire on September 6,1989. The store, located on Jake Alexander Boulevard at Highway 150, reported the fire shortly before 11 p.m. Unknown to employees, inside fighting what appeared to be a small fire behind a drink machine, a fully-involved attic fire had spread the length of the store. Firefighters attempting to hit the fire from the inside were withdrawn due to a weakened roof. The fire engulfed the store as firefighters set up a defense. A fire wall at Revco Drugs, along with an interior fire team there, kept the fire from spreading the length of the shopping mall. The height of the fire saw 2,700 gallons of water per minute flowing onto the structure. In 1995, the store has been rebuilt in the same spot, this time with a sprinkler system. Salisbury firefighters endured nature's woes on September 22, 1989. Hurricane Hugo arrived in Salisbury by way of Charleston, South Carolina. Sustained winds close to 100 miles per hour downed power lines and blew debris throughout the city. On-duty firefighters maintained their vigil, answering only life-threatening calls during the height of the storm due to abundant electrical hazards. No major fires were reported that night, but the event was one for the memories. A major fire at a former auto dealership occurred on March 6, 1992. The one-story building on Bendix Drive housed an auto restoration shop and a truck wash. Barrels of gasoline and other hazardous materials were inside and quickly spread an already deep-seated fire. The offensive operation went defensive as the building flashed-over. A third alarm was struck, and county mutual aid assisted Salisbury for the first time (in recent memory) with a tanker water supply shuttle. As the war rages, the next battle looms...... 7 8
"CHAPTER TWELVE - Get as DOC"