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As mentioned in the past several columns, we normally don’t identify fire departments here, but several departments have told us that they are willing to openly share their stories. Again, that is a refreshing approach, as difficult as it can be. This month, we look at a near-tragic event involving the Blackstone, VA, Volunteer Fire Department. Our sincere appreciation goes out to Chief Walter “Mac” Osborne, the members of the Blackstone and neighboring fire departments, and especially photographers Billy Coleburn, Ed Conley, Pete Ellington and Rick Gunter for their cooperation in preparing this month’s column.
This account is provided by Chief Osborne:
Blackstone is a small all-volunteer fire department that serves the citizens of the Town of Blackstone (3,800 population) and surrounding Nottoway County. We provide fire, rescue and EMS first-responder services. We normally run about 200 fire calls and 300 EMS calls a year. Most of our runs consist of minor vehicle accidents and fires, automatic alarms, brushfires, and occasional house or mobile home fires. We average a larger fire about every five to seven years. We operate three engines, one heavy rescue, one tower ladder, one brush truck, one tanker, an EMS unit and other support units. Our staffing consists of 40 on-call volunteers. Our average response in manpower at a incident is 12 members plus mutual aid. We also have a “junior department” that has four firefighters and a ladies’ auxiliary that supports our operations.
Our department had never had an aerial truck, but as fire chief I supported the effort to have one available in our community. In April 2003, we found a used Mack 75-foot Aerialscope for sale. At the time, our town leaders did not agree that we needed an aerial truck and would not fund its purchase. The nearest mutual-aid aerial truck is almost 30 miles away, so we thought it was good insurance to have a “truck” available when needed. Our department members took some funds we had left over from our fire station building account, purchased the truck and presented the title to the town. Other than the extensive training, we never had the need or the opportunity to have it “up” at any of the few structure fires we had run – until March 11, 2004.
That day, we were dispatched to a reported fire in the alley behind Mitchell’s Restaurant at 103 S. Main St. This building is in the downtown historic district, built as a store in the early 1900s. All of downtown was part of a revitalization effort about 20 years ago, when many storefronts were restored, trees planted and period lighting installed. The store, last known as Rose’s, was vacant until Gus Mitchell purchased it and renovated it into a restaurant in the late 1980s. He had a very good business and it was known to be the place business leaders and local politicians regularly met and ate.
The restaurant retained the building’s decorative metal ceiling in the dining room. In the middle there was a kitchen and a small banquet room, while the rear was used for receiving and storage. The old Rose’s office area that once overlooked the sales floor was redone as an office. Over the years, his business expanded to catering parties and special events.
The building contained one single room, below grade (at the C-D corner) that once served as a boiler room. This room had been converted to a shop to support repairs and maintenance for the restaurant operations. The all-wood, unprotected stairway from the ground floor passed over this room to a landing, then up the stairs to a single room used for storage and as a makeshift equipment room. It is believed that this room had a number of wall and ceiling coverings, including open wood rafters on the back two-thirds and old wood shelving on the B wall that was about 50 feet long, used for stock when it was Rose’s. It had a combination of plaster on brick, tongue-and-grooved wood on the walls. The front one-third (under an old A roof) had decorative metal ceiling tiles.