Dilapidated warehouses in downtown Knoxville go up in flames

Dilapidated warehouses in downtown Knoxville go up in flames

Photographer Matt Brewster captured this image as a wall of the warehouse collapsed, narrowly missing firefighters as it fell on a fire truck. Photographer Matt Brewster captured this image as a wall of the warehouse collapsed, narrowly missing firefighters as it fell on a fire truck.
Eight hours after the fire first started, firefighters were still battling flare ups and extinguishing hot spots. Eight hours after the fire first started, firefighters were still battling flare ups and extinguishing hot spots.
The McClung Warehouses as they appeared in 2005 The McClung Warehouses as they appeared in 2005

February 7, 2007

KNOXVILLE (WATE) -- Fire crews will remain on the scene Wednesday night, making certain no new flames break out at a row of 114-year-old warehouse buildings in downtown Knoxville after a huge morning fire.

Four firefighters were injured in an amazing escape, portions of three buildings in the McClung Warehouses, at 501-525 West Jackson Ave, collapsed, a fire truck was badly damaged and many drivers found detours necessary during their commutes.

The fire also forced the warehouses' owner out with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, displaced many downtown residents for a few hours and interrupted train traffic that runs behind the buildings.

The cause of the fire has not been determined. Fire officials say the buildings remain too dangerous for them to enter Wednesday.

By day's end, the ruins of those three buildings were a complete loss.

The first and second buildings caught fire at 1:11 a.m. Wednesday. When the third building went up in flames around 7:00 a.m., it also threatened some downtown buildings, including a row of townhouses called Ryan's Row.

"You couldn't get but about two feet towards the window and you could feel the heat, even through the blinds. The glass panes were so hot," says Bill Douglas, a resident of Ryan's Row. 

Douglas and his neighbors hosed down the exterior of the buildings and firefighters took positions on the roofs, in case the flames spread.

The four injured firefighters were in one of the McClung Warehouses when flames erupted, trapping them on the third floor behind a locked door and a fire ball for a time.

"They actually tied a hose and scullied down the hose. It was a pretty amazing thing. That's how they got out of there because the roof started in a ball in one of the corners and just overtook the entire floor, not just a room, but an entire warehouse floor," spokesman Capt. Darrell Whitaker explained. 

"When I first heard that story, I thought, no somebody is mistaken. They didn't get out by doing that. But they sure enough did," Whitaker added.

The firefighters who were injured are: 43-year-old Jeff Kendrick, 34-year-old Capt. Jeff Lee, 36-year-old Capt. Joe Lee and 29-year-old Kevin Andrews. Jeff and Joe Lee are brothers.

Their injuries ranged from first, second and third degree burns on their faces and hands. Kendrick remains hospitalized at UT Medical Center. The others were treated there and released.

Assistant Fire Chief Steve Fowler, who got out of the burning building just minutes ahead of three of the injured firefighters described the tense moments.

"It was like a monster. It just came at us. It came with such intensity and such furorosity, for lack of a better term, that it was just un-describable," Fowler said.

Fowler also described the elation he felt knowing his men were alive. "It was wonderful. We just hugged and said we're glad to see each other. It's kind of like a lost sheep coming home. It was just the most exciting thing that I've been through in a long time, just to see those guys and know that they are alright."

Firefighters believed the original fire was contained but when the second building began burning six hours later, crews were forced to reposition quickly to keep it from spreading to any more buildings.

Flames from the warehouses were soon shooting many feet into the air again and lighting-up the sky for miles as the sun rose.

Winds and the intensity of the original fire threatened other downtown buildings as firefighters tried to bring it under control. It reached the roof of the Emporium Building by 2:00 a.m.

click to enlarge

Small fires caught on the roofs of nearby buildings including the Volunteer Ministry Center.

Residents of downtown apartments and lofts were evacuated for a few hours.

The fire also affected the morning commute as several streets in the area were blocked off by Police. Jackson, the Gay Street Viaduct, and Broadway between Depot and Summit Hill were closed for hours. 

During the original fire, one firefighter narrowly escaped serious injury as a collapsing wall fell and hit a fire truck. The truck was badly damaged including a bent ladder, partially buckled roof and partially shattered windshield.

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam praised the efforts of the fire department to keep the blaze from causing major damage to any other parts of downtown. He said his thoughts are with the injured firefighters and their families and he's very grateful no one was killed.

The owner of the warehouses, Mark Saroff, said he lost everything he owned in the fire and was lucky to get out alive.

He told 6 News by phone that he was asleep on the second floor of one of the buildings when he heard some noises downstairs right before the flames erupted. He was the only one home at the time.

There is one business in the row that caught fire. Ernie Gross Designs, a furniture design company that specializes in woodwork, is located at 515 W. Jackson Avenue.

The owner of the company, Ernie Gross, was able to salvage a few things before the building burned. But he lost more than $1 million worth of products and equipment. He's now working out of a nearby office building.

"You always hear the remarks, they don't build buildings like this anymore. Well, it was one of those buildings," Gross says. "Big wooden beams, wooden floors which is very, very easy on your feet. You could work longer. The windows that would let natural light in."

Chaplains from an outside agency will counsel all the firefighters from the Knoxville Fire Department who battled the blaze.

Knox County officials have battled with the owner of the McClung Warehouses for several years to get the mostly-empty buildings repaired or torn down. Saroff owes over $21,000 in back taxes to the city and the county for the buildings.

Knox Heritage included the McClung Warehouses in its most recent selection of the "Fragile 15" in May 2006. The first building was erected in 1893.

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