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Incoming mutual aid from the Crewe Volunteer Fire Department was assigned to assist Blackstone Engine 3’s crew in the alley. These crews took a beating and were unable to make any head way. The narrow alley, barred windows and deep-seated fire were all working against them, but they were able to protect the JCPenney exposure in the rear. The heat and fire were slowly destroying the main trunk line, telephone cables and electrical lines in the alley overhead.
Assistant Chief Ray Armes, who was in the bucket of Truck 9, decided to change attack strategies due to the increasing fire. He placed Nunnelly in the basket along with Firefighters Robert Paulette and J.J. Jones to open up the roof of the exposure to the right to see why it appeared that the fire was starting to spread. Smoke was now starting to “lightly show” in the upper floor of the gym at the roof line, near where it connected to Mitchell’s. Armes ordered an additional pumper for a 1¾-inch line to advance up a stairway to the second floor between the buildings. The crew brought a 2½-inch line, but Armes asked them to take it back and get the other line. We were hoping the fire would vent itself through the built-up roof and that it would not spread, but it looked like the common wall was not going to hold. We were waiting for mutual aid to help with the exposures as additional Blackstone firefighters arrived.
The Kenbridge Volunteer Fire Department, under command of Chief Richard Harris, was given the assignment to enter and prevent the spread of the fire in the right exposure. They caught a hydrant one block south and laid in a single three-inch line, while their attack crew laddered the right exposure and removed a single second-floor window. A three-man crew (one from Blackstone and two from Kenbridge) took a 1¾-inch line to the second floor to search for possible fire spread to that building. Jones and Paulette were on the roof and just finished cutting a small “starter hole” in the standing seam metal roof on the right exposure and prepared to remove the cut section, while Nunnelly staffed the bucket and continued to flow water toward the rear of the building, while maintaining a safe egress via the bucket.
There still was no fire showing from the front, but for a time we were not applying water to the front (the aerial was tied up doing ventilation and related truck work). Armes briefly removed his helmet to don his facepiece as his crew prepared to enter. I looked back to my right to see a town electrical truck now sporting a 1¾-inch handline. The Kenbridge chief and town employees had it in a defensive mode in case the fire spread south, but otherwise were “lobbing” a small stream onto the roof of the gym. I briefly considered having it shut down (now that I have a “real” aerial device), but I was distracted by the urgent fire spread issue.
Acting as the incident commander and still directing overall operations, I was standing across the street directly in line with the door to the gift shop giving initial arrival directions to the South Hill fire chief on the radio. Suddenly, there was a burst of fire and heat from the right upper windows of Mitchell’s; less than a second later, a “smoke explosion” occurred in the upper floor/attic of the gym, going from right to left.
The rear second-story brick wall failed and fell outward, and plywood sheeting that had been nailed over the back windows was thrown about 50 feet into the alley. The crew operating at the C-D corner took cover and ducked as pieces of glass and plywood flew past. I turned and covered myself against the doorway of the insurance office. I could feel glass and other small debris showering me. The dozen or so firefighters operating on Main Street, in front of me, were pushed across the street by the blast. Armes’ crew, including Major, Pridgen and Firefighters Buzz Bryant and Ben Prosise, were struck by debris, with some ending up on the opposite side of Main Street close to me. Armes’ father, Firefighter Phillip Armes, was briefly knocked from his position at the pedestal turntable controls of Truck 9. The firefighters venting the exposure rode the roof up and down like a trampoline, then evacuated to the aerial bucket and were unharmed.