Cause of Blaze in Texas Firefighter's Death Sought

Denison Fire Marshal John Weda has been working with several investigators from the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office to determine the cause and point of origin of Saturday morning's fire that killed Denison firefighter Phillip Townsend.

The fire at 900 S. Crockett also destroyed three businesses and left the old building a skeleton of its former form. While firefighters from Denison and several other agencies battled the blaze, Mr. Townsend and his fire chief, Gordon Weger, attacked it on the south end. There was no sign of active flames, only dark smoke that was rolling from the south end to north end when the awning over them collapsed and buried both men. A multitude of firefighters and bystanders worked together to rescue them, but Mr. Townsend was later pronounced dead. Weger suffered a dislocated shoulder and a gash on his head and went back to work later Saturday.

Jay Evans, supervisor for the state fire marshal's office, was one of several who appeared in Denison as early as Saturday afternoon. Another state fire marshal, Ed Cheevers, said Texas legislation passed about four years ago requires that the State Fire Marshal's Office become involved in investigations when there is a fatality involved. Cheevers works out of the Fort Worth office and is no stranger to fire departments around Grayson County as he handles all investigations when called in by fire departments with no fire marshal of their own.

Evans said they went through the building Saturday and Sunday and have determined that there is nothing that would label this fire as "suspicious," answering the main question on everybody's mind, spoken or silent.

The cause of the fire may remain classified as "undetermined," Evans said. The reason for that, he explained, is because the electricity in the point of origin is so far gone they can't get a good trace on it. Also, the 2-foot by 4-foot boards are also demolished. They have collected evidence to be forensicly tested and will continue their study into the cause when they get the results of that, but Evans said he didn't hold much hope for an actual determination.

"We will continue to examine to find the cause, but it might never actually be pinpointed," Evans said.

The point of origin, however, has been determined to have been in the attic of the south end.

"It traveled quickly because it got some air," Evans said. Earlier, Weda has said the wind blew Saturday from the south to the north. "Once heat gets cool air, it accelerates. First, it was moderate to light smoke there, but when it traveled across the attic, it became a backdraft. It reached a flammability (temperature), and the smoke turns black," Evans illustrated. "At that time, it disintegrates 2'x4' and 2'x6' boards in minutes. In this case, those boards, which we found disintegrated in the attic, caused the front wall to fall in and the awning was the first thing that fell."

The first flames came through the center section, Denison Fire Capt. Troy Baker said at the scene, and Evans confirmed that. He said the building was 135-feet across and as the winds continued, the flames traveled and exploded until the entire building was taken.

Like a fire's backdraft, word of Mr. Townsend's tragic death rapidly spread through fire departments across Texas and Oklahoma, as indicated by the many telephone calls that flooded lines at Denison's Central Fire Station from that time until now (Sunday), said Denison Fire Captain Dennis Snider. "We've had calls from D-FW Airport FD, from Frisco, Euless," he said as he listed many others from North Texas and Bryan County, Okla.

Local fire departments, voluntary and paid, are offering their physical assistance through the difficult time, as well as their emotional support.

Republished with permission of the Herald Democrat.

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