Friday, January 9, 2015

Inch Forty-Five: The Things We Remember

William Street 1971
 Jack remembered the night sky of orange, their minister sobbing in his father's arms, firefighters and volunteers standing on downtown rooftops that bitter cold night to squelch any embers that might land on another building.

"It was 44 years ago this month and I still remember watching that church go up in flames," he said.

At another downtown fire 31 years later, Jim, a captain with our fire department, arrived on the scene and remembers the odd, eerie "clink clink clink" sounds coming from the building after his men had gone inside.

"I suddenly realized my men were slipping on the ice that was already forming inside and we were hearing their oxygen tanks hitting the walls and floor as they tried to keep their balance," he said.

We are in the midst of several days of intense cold. Bone-chilling cold. Bitter cold. The waning moon hangs in the west in the morning and casts a baleful eye on our frozen town.

The topic of cold and fires came up earlier this week after a Civil Service meeting, when a few of us talked about the difficulties of fighting a fire in intense cold. The number one rule, according to the Chief and Jim? Keep the water flowing. Our talk segued to the additional challenges of fighting fires in historic buildings, be it the William Street Methodist Church that burned all night long in 1971 or the fire in Bun's Restaurant that consumed a third of a three-front block (a block being a building, not a street block) in 2002. Both buildings were built in 1888.
Bun's fire 2002 

These were not our first downtown fires and there have been other fires since then. In these and the other downtown fires, our city fire department contained and controlled the fire so that only one building was lost in only the most severe fires and damage was contained and the building saved in the others.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation identifies fire as the biggest threat to  historic commercial districts. Built before building codes, historic commercial buildings often have false walls and ceilings that can conceal fire, they often have old wiring, they sometimes have odd utility chases that serve as tunnels for flames, and they lack many of the safety features that modern and renovated structures have. In a commercial district, because most buildings stand wall to wall without yards to separate them, it is easy for a fire to quickly spread from one building to the next.

Our downtown is made up almost exclusively of historic commercial buildings, many of them the same age as the two fires Jim and Jack mentioned. In looking at those and the other downtown fires of the last forty years, one only has to imagine what would have happened if the fires had spread. We would have lost key buildings in the core of our downtown if not our entire downtown. Fires of that magnitude and devastation have occurred in other communities nationwide every year. 

That we still have our historic downtown speaks to the skill and dedication of our firefighters. Saving our downtown has made for many of our fire department's finest moments. 

When I walk downtown, so comfortable with the streetscape that I sometimes don't even take full notice of it, I wonder what my impressions would be if we had lost the buildings I take for granted. 

I wonder what I would remember.


see you there! said...

Fires are scary and those who fight them are brave. I'm always sad to see an old building go whatever the reason.


Laurie said...

I enjoyed this post. Though these were sad stories, your storytelling is lovely. I love the old buildings too, with their wonderful character.