On Friday, Nov. 7, 2008, a three-alarm fire destroyed the historic Metropolitan Building in downtown Champaign, IL. The three-story brick-and-mortar structure, built in 1871, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was originally known as the Rugg Boot and Leather Shop. The second-floor ceilings were so high that the building was used for a time by the Champaign High School basketball team for practice space.

At the time of the fire, the building was undergoing extensive renovations and no fire protection or detection systems were in operation. The building was to include commercial space on the first floor and eight apartments and six loft apartments on the second and third floors. A party wall separated the building from an adjoining three-story building to the south occupied by a law firm.

The Champaign Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at 219 North Neil St. at 5:15 A.M. Engine 151, a 1,500-gpm pumper with a 50-foot telescoping ladder; Engines 152 and 153, both 1,500-gpm pumpers; Ladder 161, a 100-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump; Squad 171, a heavy rescue; and Car 110 responded with 15 firefighters under the command of Captain Dave Ferber. Fire Chief Douglas Forsman and Deputy Chiefs Stephen Clarkson, Eric Mitchell and Tim Wild also responded on the first alarm.

At 5:18, first-arriving units found flames shooting 100 feet into the air. Fire was blowing out the second- and third-floor windows on the east side and three-quarters of the length of the north side of the building. Eighteen-inch firebrands were flying through the air landing on buildings up to a block away. Engine 151 was positioned west of the fire on Church Street and supplied by a 200-foot, five-inch line. Squad 171 was also positioned west of the fire on Church Street and its crew assisted the crew of Engine 151 in placing its elevated master stream into service to protect exposures. Engine 151's crew also placed two 2½-inch lines into operation. One line was positioned at street level on the north side of the fire and the other line was advanced to the roof of a two-story building west of the fire.

Ladder 161 was positioned north of the fire building on Neil Street and set up for aerial master stream operations. This unit was supplied by a 600-foot, five-inch line laid by Engine 153 to a hydrant on Neil Street. Engine 152 was positioned east of the fire on Main Street and fed by a 100-foot, five-inch line. Firefighters placed a portable deck gun into operation at the northeast corner of the building supplied with a pair of three-inch supply lines from the engine. Firefighters also placed a 2½-inch handline into operation to protect exposures east of the fire building.

Multiple Alarms

Ferber immediately requested a second alarm upon arrival. Engines 154 and 155, both 1,500-gpm pumpers, and Ladder 164, a 100-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump, responded with eight firefighters. Engine 155, the first second-alarm company to arrive, was positioned in a parking lot south of the fire and placed its deck gun into operation. No additional lines were placed into operation from this engine due to a two-story building between the parking lot and the fire building. This engine was supplied by a 200-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant on Randolph Street. Ladder 164 was positioned on Main Street east of the fire and set up for aerial master stream operations. This aerial was supplied by a 500-foot, five-inch supply line laid by Engine 154 to a hydrant east of the fire on Main Street.

Forsman requested a third alarm at 5:35 A.M. Champaign Engine 156, a 1,500-gpm pumper responded and was positioned south of the fire on Neil Street and was fed by a 200-foot, five-inch line. This engine placed its deck gun into operation. Urbana Fire and Rescue Service responded with Engines 251, 253 and 254, all 1,500-gpm pumpers; Ladder 261, a 100-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump; and Car 220 with 13 firefighters under the command of Urbana Division Chief Rusty Chism.

Engine 253 and Ladder 261 were assigned to an exposure fire one block north at the Orpheum Children's Science Museum, where embers from the fire ignited the roof. Crews from Engines 251 and 254 were assigned to the evacuation of residents at One Main and neighboring downtown apartments. Arrow Ambulance and Pro Ambulance, two private ambulance services, responded with a total of four ambulances and one EMS command unit with nine personnel. Two ambulances were staged on the east and west sides of the fire. The EMS command unit established firefighter rehab one block east of the fire.

Mutual Aid

Mutual aid companies from surrounding fire departments were brought in to staff city fire stations and provided coverage to the City of Champaign. Cornbelt Fire Protection District Engine 50, Savoy Fire Department Engine 454 and Ladder 461, and Edge-Scott Fire Protection District Engine 6652 were positioned at Champaign Fire Stations 1 and 4. A call-back officer from Champaign was assigned to each mutual aid company. Mutual aid companies responded to two medical calls and a vehicle fire. St. Joseph-Stanton Fire Protection District Engine 1152 and Carroll Fire Protection District Engine 6151 responded to Urbana Stations 1 and 3.

After nearly 1½ hours of continued master stream use, Forsman declared the fire under control at 6:36 A.M. Mutual aid units were released at 7:30 A.M. The last Champaign units left the scene at 3:06 P.M. on Nov. 8, 33 hours and 51 minutes after the initial alarm. Some 110 firefighters operated at the fire, The temperature was 40 degrees with 13-mph winds at the time of the fire.

Fire Investigation

The cause and origin of the fire was investigated by the Champaign Fire Investigations Unit and the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal. On Dec. 5, Wild, head of the Champaign Fire Department's Investigation Unit, listed the cause of the fire as undetermined and closed the case due to unsafe conditions at the scene. Damage was estimated at over $3.5 million to the Metropolitan Building and the six other buildings that were damaged. The three-story adjoining law office building suffered fire, water and smoke damage.

At the height of the fire, 8,000 gpm was being applied to the fire with no effect being seen. The water was simply evaporating as it hit the heat of the fire. Five different radio channels were used to run an effective incident command. New call-back procedures have been implemented because of this incident. Chief officers commended the teamwork by all emergency services and others, including Champaign Public Works, AmerenIP, Illinois American Water Co., American Red Cross and Salvation Army.

Lessons Learned

Problems — A substantial wall collapse occurred within minutes of arrival. Incident commanders needed to assign geographic divisions earlier in the incident.

Successes — The majority of the fire was contained to the building of origin. No injuries or deaths occurred during the incident. Training, pre-plans, adequate staffing, building inspections, walk-throughs and mutual aid procedures were in place and were used properly. Recent collapse training is credited for no injuries occurring during the initial collapse. Public information procedures were in place and quickly notified early-morning commuters of traffic changes. Fire investigators were on scene before the fire was extinguished.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.