On The Job - Atlanta: Daring Rescue During Mill Fire

Dave E. Williams recounts the heroic rescue of a construction worker from a crane atop a burning building.

When the Atlanta Fire Department “B Shift” went to work on April 12, 1999, little did the members know that before their 24 hours of duty ended they would make a world-class rescue during a fire that consumed the largest plank-on-timber former factory remaining within the city limits.

This was one of the most complex and dramatic incidents in a decade to face the AFD. Between the old textile mill and fires started by flying brands, the operation required seven alarms to suppress. In addition to the AFD’s commitment, fire apparatus from 17 departments responded to Atlanta’s call for help under the Georgia Mutual Aid Group (GMAG). Eight Tactical Sectors were set up, each vital to the overall outcome of the incident and each with its own command structure.

deadly site

April 12 dawned a bright and clear spring day in Atlanta with no unusual fire activity. Squad 4, commanded by Captain Tom Doyle, responded to Sandy Springs, just north of the city, at 8:32 A.M. to assist the Fulton County Fire Department at a hazardous material incident at the Emory Eye Clinic. On arrival, the squad found a fluorine gas leak inside the building. This is a dangerously reactive gas that reacts violently with most oxidizable substances at room temperature, frequently with ignition. The leak was contained with no injuries or fire, and Squad 4 returned to quarters at 11:01 A.M.

Between 1876 and the 1970s, a massive textile company operated as the Fulton Bag & Cotton Mills Inc. The company produced high-quality canvas, and its cloth bags were used in many products before competition from plastic packaging and imports caused operations to stop in 1971.

Fulton Bag has been deadly to the AFD. On June 22, 1920, Captain John M. Jenkins of Ladder 12 was critically injured in a fire at the mill and never returned to work. On Sept. 29, 1921, Assistant Chief S. Blake Chapman was killed in a three-story former piano factory leased to Fulton Bag.

The vacant Fulton Bag complex nearly had the “fire of the century” on March 12, 1982, when an electrical short ignited a passageway between the lower floors of the Mill No. 1 building and upper floors of the Finishing Mill Building. Several alarms and some tough firefighting stopped the fire before it could make headway and take off. As with the 1999 fire, stairwells, walkways and elevator shafts rapidly spread the fire.

In 1995, developer John Aderhold purchased the complex to renovate the buildings into “loft” apartments. Aderhold razed some of the more deteriorated buildings, including the original 1881 Bleachery, Warehouse No. 4, the Machine Shop, the Lining Building and Warehouse No. 11. This created a “fire break” between Mill No. 1 and the structures to its west.

On the day of the 1999 fire, one of the buildings remaining was a huge, four-story-high Boiler House. The brick structure’s machinery space contained minimal combustibles. This building acted as a heat shield, likely saving the remaining portion of the complex from the radiant heat as Mill No. 1 burned. Work had been completed and apartments were occupied in the three-story, total-masonry Bleachery Building, erected in 1951. The five-story, plank-on-timber Bag Factory (circa 1925) and the attached nine-story structures known as Buildings 6 and 8 were also renovated and occupied as apartments.

Company-owned dwellings, comprising a typical “mill village,” were constructed east of the factory complex in a neighborhood that became known as Cabbagetown. It is speculated the nickname was derived from the smell of cabbage being cooked by the low-income textile workers in these small wood-frame houses. These houses were built six feet or less apart, and that was a factor in the fire.

Much of Cabbagetown is being renovated, so most of its houses are occupied. As typical of mill-owned housing, it starts directly across a narrow street from one side of the factory complex. This was the case at Fulton Bag and the radiant heat from the fully involved Mill No. 1 soon lit off all of the two-story “apartment” structures east of the building. Other houses within Cabbagetown soon followed, mainly ignited by flying brands.

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