On the Job: Tennessee – Arson Fire Destroys Morristown Strip Mall

Crews from Engine 1 exited just prior to flashover. Master streams are being used to confine the fire to Auto Zone.


Chief: William Honeycutt
PersonneL: 78 career firefighters
Apparatus: Two engines, one aerial platform, three quints, two reserve engines, one reserve ladder truck
Population: 24,965
Area: 17 square miles

The Morristown Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at the South Cumberland Center strip mall, 415 South Cumberland St., at 5:09 A.M., after a police officer on patrol noticed smoke coming from the structure. Engines 1 and 2, both quints with 55-foot aerial ladders, Engine 3 and Truck 1, a 92-foot aerial platform, responded with 14 firefighters under the command of Battalion Chief Denny Holt.

Engine 1 arrived first on the scene followed by Truck 1. These units encountered heavy smoke conditions issuing from the Dollar General and Auto Zone stores. Engine 1 laid 500 feet of five-inch supply line from a hydrant at the corner of East Third and South Cumberland streets to a position in front of the Auto Zone store. Truck 1 laid 400 feet of five-inch hose from a hydrant at the corner of East Hill and Third streets to a position in front of the Dollar General store. Engine 2 laid 200 feet of five-inch line from a hydrant on South Hill Street to a position behind the strip mall.

Heavy fire involves the structure. Crews and apparatus have been repositioned as the fire extended the length of the common roof.

Defensive operations were initiated on the Dollar General store upon arrival. Truck 1 was set up for water tower operations. Firefighters advanced one 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line and two 150-foot three-inch lines from Engine 1 to try to contain the fire to the Dollar General store. Morristown Dry Goods was the exposure on the left and Auto Zone was the exposure to the right.

Fire was already extending into the dry goods store, so no interior operations were attempted in that store. All efforts were made to contain the fire to those two stores and to prevent it from spreading to the Auto Zone. The crew from Engine 1 forced entry into the Auto Zone store and found light smoke conditions. Firefighters pulled the ceiling and found fire extending from the Dollar General store across the underneath of the common roof. Firefighters operated two 150-foot 1¾-inch lines from Engine 1 inside the store for about 15 minutes. Two 150-foot 1¾-inch pre-connects were advanced to the rear of the building for fire attack.

All hoselines operate from a distance into the structure.

Holt requested a second alarm at 5:30 A.M. Engine 4 responded to the scene and was staged in the parking lot. The four-man crew from this engine was assigned to firefighting operations. As the fire consumed the Auto Zone store and continued to spread to the other two stores, Engine 2’s ladder pipe and handlines were used to protect the Food City exposure 75 feet away and six homes located behind the rear of the mall. Eventually, Engine 1 and Truck 1 were repositioned to the D-A corner of the mall.

The roof and facade collapse in front of the Auto Zone store at 7 A.M.

Honeycutt declared the fire under control at 9 A.M. Mutual aid departments were released at 11:30 A.M. Sixty firefighters operated two pumpers; two quints and one aerial platform while battling the fire. A 14-foot combination ladder and a high-rise pack were destroyed when the roof on the Auto Zone store collapsed. No injuries were reported.

An elevated master stream is directed on the fire from a 55-foot aerial ladder. The single-story strip mall, which was constructed in 1955, housed five retail businesses at the time of the fire.

A four-day investigation by the Morristown Fire Department, Morristown Police Department, Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Special Operations Response Team (SORT) and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) determined that the fire was arson. The fire was started in the Dollar General store. The materials used was not been released to the public. Damage was estimated at $4 million.

Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.