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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Exposure problems were recognized early. Elevated streams and deck guns were used to protect exposures and create "water curtains." Only small alleyways separated the fire building and the adjacent buildings. Operations assigned Deputy Chief Gary Ludwig (a Firehouse® contributing editor) the responsibility of managing companies assigned to the exposures.

"Communication is key in controlling fire spread," Ludwig said. "You must set up to protect exposures early. You have to anticipate where the fire is going, not where it is, and relay that information early and often to your companies. In order to do this, you must have the resources on the ground. Sometimes, you have to 'go ugly early' (referring to multiple alarms). If you don't need the resources, no one is hurt and companies can return to quarters if not needed. If you are reluctant and don't 'go ugly early' in situations like these, you risk the possibility of losing life and property because it can get out of hand very fast. You have to stay one alarm ahead of the fire."

Mitchell called for a second alarm at 3:08 A.M. and a third alarm at 3:52. Wind gusts ripped through downtown Memphis, adding to the October chill and fueling the difficulty of the operation. Mitchell reported what he described as a "fire storm" overhead with golfball-size embers coming from the church and heading south toward the heart of downtown. The high winds carried the embers blocks away and began a chain of events that would put the Memphis Fire Department to the test.

At 4:05 A.M., a cell phone call was received for a possible fire on the roof of the Shelby County Building at 140 Adams. Engine 29, which had been pulled in from the south part of the city to cover territory left opened by the church fire, was dispatched to investigate. The company made it to the roof of the Shelby County Building and reported all clear at that location, but from their vantage point the crew could see a building on fire near Jefferson and Main streets, several blocks away.

At 4:20, just eight minutes after third-alarm companies were dispatched to the church fire, Engines 26, 20, 16 and 28, Trucks 11 and 7, and Battalion 6 were dispatched to Jefferson and Main. These companies had also been moved in from other areas of the city to cover territory left open by the church fire. "At 0427, we received a cell phone call that a building was on fire at Court Square, so we re-routed those companies to that location," Fire Communications Watch Commander Shane Walker said.

The "fire storm" of embers and debris had apparently ignited the vacant nine-story Court Square Annex five blocks away on the north side of Court Square. Smoke and flames were also reported in two other buildings, including the 22-story Lincoln American Tower, once the tallest building in Memphis. Second and third alarms were called for simultaneously at 5:07.

The fire at the church was declared under control at 4:12 and knocked down at 5:31. As it was put under control, Kuhn passed operations to another chief officer and notified Mitchell of his intent to move five blocks over to assist with operations at the fires reported at Court Square. Deputy Chief of Special Operations Michael Putt took the position of incident commander at the newest inferno and Kuhn assumed operations.

Two of the three buildings on fire were under renovation and had open windows that welcomed the chunks of debris from the church fire. Trucks were put in defensive positions in the Alpha Division of the Court Square Annex in a manner to avoid building collapse, which did occur. "It was apparent upon arrival that this building was a loss and we had to protect exposures," said Kuhn. A monitor was then used to maintain control of the building. Fire patrols were sent on foot to gather intelligence of fire spread in alleyways and other nearby buildings. No major incidents were reported, but companies did extinguish small spot fires in some alleyways.

The 22-story Lincoln/American Building was in the Bravo Division of the Court Square fire. Given the age of the buildings and the various stages of renovation, there were no working standpipes or sprinkler system. "Fire was reported in all windows of the structure," Kuhn said. Truck 7 became the standpipe for this operation and was elevated to the seventh floor. The 2½-inch lines were connected and sculled up each stairway, where wyed lines were used to control the fire by three high-rise task forces, each comprised of two engines, a truck company and a battalion chief. "This operation took a considerable amount of manpower and time," Kuhn said. "Rehab and rotating crews was instrumental in the success of this operation."