Fire Reigns in Downtown Memphis

J. Harold Logan reports on two three-alarm blazes that struck the historic downtown area of the Tennessee city.


For the first time anyone could remember, Memphis, TN, was the scene of two three-alarm fires burning roughly at the same time, when in the early-morning hours of Oct. 6, 2006, flames swept through the historic downtown area. The First United Methodist Church, built in 1893, was the scene of...


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For the first time anyone could remember, Memphis, TN, was the scene of two three-alarm fires burning roughly at the same time, when in the early-morning hours of Oct. 6, 2006, flames swept through the historic downtown area.

The First United Methodist Church, built in 1893, was the scene of the initial reported alarm. The original fire began around 2:39 A.M. in the basement of the 113-year-old church building at Second Street and Poplar Avenue. The church has deep roots in Memphis. It was organized on the first Sunday of February 1826, and is the oldest institution of any kind in the city, which sits on a bluff of the Mississippi River.

The sanctuary that burned was completed in 1893 and last remodeled in 1977. The church was largely destroyed. Its roof caved in, the steeple toppled and other portions of the structure collapsed onto the street. The intense heat from the fire cracked dozens of windows across the street at the Shelby County Election Commission building at 157 Poplar Ave. and the Pepper Building, next to the church, sustained significant smoke and water damage with most materials ruined.

Memphis Fire Department Engines 1, 5 and 2, Trucks 2 and 5, and Battalion 1 were the first units on the scene. According to the incident commander, Division Chief Ron Mitchell, initial-arriving companies reported smoke showing in the Alpha Division of the church, but no visible fire. However, soon after they arrived, one of two doors leading to the basement of the church was opened and a small amount of fire was seen. Engine 1 attempted to extinguish the fire at this location.

"The fire was small, but the heat was intense and the amount of smoke coming out of the building did not match the behavior of the heat and small amount of fire seen when the first door was opened," Mitchell said.

The second door to the basement was opened and companies attempted to advance. "The smoke grew heavier and I knew it had to be in the walls," Mitchell said. "At that point, I gave the order to go defensive and pulled companies out." A personnel accountability rollcall (PAR) was ordered and all companies were accounted for.

"In my 29 years of firefighting, I have never seen a building go so quickly," Mitchell said. "Seconds after pulling the guys out of the building and going defensive, it erupted into flames from the basement to the top of the church." He said that knowledge of fire behavior combined with pre-planning and specific "target hazards" associated with the building played an important part in the decisions made in regard to a risk/benefit analysis and the decision to go defensive.

Deputy Chief Donald Kuhn, a 33-year veteran of the department, arrived shortly after Mitchell and described the night's events as the "fire of the century." In addition to his three decades of fire suppression experience, Kuhn is a task force leader for one of the most active federal Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, Tennessee Task Force 1. He assumed the incident command system role of operations. The combination of operational experience on the fireground, the Pentagon on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and a background as a special operations chief led him to retain the role of operations instead of taking the role of incident commander. "I had my targets in sight, I knew what I wanted to do and it had to be done fast," he said.

Kuhn echoed Mitchell's account, with reports of heavy smoke seen in all divisions of the church and small fire being seen during his size-up of the building in a side door of the church. "The fire moved rapidly and now was blowing out all windows," said Kuhn. Some companies had placed themselves close to the fire building; therefore, repositioning of apparatus was ordered and a collective decision was made to go defensive given the hour of the morning, no reports of victims and life safety issues of firefighters. Chief officers were assigned to each division of the church building and all companies had been moved out of the collapse zones.

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