Anatomy of an Inferno



"Something's not right."

Proximity designates Gray's Engine Co. 1, stationed at 211 Jackson Avenue, first on the scene. The church sits four blocks away.

When the call came, the company jumped aboard its engine with precise urgency. Private Katrina Drewry, an eight-year veteran of the department, drove. Privates Brian Cline and Tony Christian alternated tasks, with one as hook-up man, the other nozzle man. They knew how their role differed from that of firefighters in other sections of the city. They had a responsibility to save lives and to preserve historic landmarks.

On the brief trip from the engine house to the fire, Gray and his crew's trained eyes looked upward, hoping not to see the worst -- a fire on the top floor. Though no fire blazed in the sky, the crew did begin to recognize the extent of the alarm. "Getting there," Gray describes now, looking back at that moment, "all around I saw a light haze. I'm thinking, 'There are vagrants around there, maybe it's trash.' Once we turned the corner on the Poplar side, that was when we actually saw some fire inside the basement.windows: Then it was time to snap into it."

Drewry pulled the engine right up to the corner of Poplar and Second. Fire Truck Company 2 accompanied Engine Co. 1. Lieutenant Russell Sesley, a veteran of 20 years, led the truck crew, which carried ladders, as Gray led the engine crew, which hauled the water.

During that call, each lieutenant understood their mutual need. The engine company finds and extinguishes fires. The truck company opens up walls and ceilings, and makes every effort to salvage buildings. The two groups also share modes of preparation and strategic ideas. They inspect sites, and plan contingencies for various fire scenarios. Once they snap into action, members of each group know the buildings they're en route to. They mentally upload a blueprint of the building, count the number of rooms, visualize points of entry, and assess the likelihood of a rescue, given the time of day and type of structure. Having worked together for a decade, Gray and Sesley knew what to expect from each other.

Sesley leapt off the truck and tore down the basement door at the corner with a few swipes of his axe. Private Cline, who alternated duties with Private Christian, was on hook-up, while Christian picked up the nozzle. Cline connected the "line" (as they call the hose) to a hydrant, grabbed the line about a foot behind the nozzle man, and followed him in. Gray grabbed on another foot behind Cline.

"Once they got that door open, we took that line down into the basement," Gray recalls. "We saw a little fire, and advanced the line down there."

Seeing only light haze around the building and a few flames in the basement, the group felt confident they could extinguish the fire. Moving in, they saw flames along the basement walls, and looked up and saw fire streak across the ceiling. Christian sprayed it all down, but heat and black smoke surrounded them. He led the team on through the smothering, thick darkness.

The men realized they were fighting an invisible fire. "We got 10 to 15 feet in the basement," Christian remembers, "and could all hear it popping and crackling."

Meanwhile, outside on the corner, Chief Beverly Prye had taken command. She and Gray stayed in constant radio communication.

The company pushed slowly through the darkness, searching for the flames. All understood the added urgency of fighting a fire in the basement of a large building: The rest of it can tumble down at any moment, especially when the fire burns inside the basement walls and weakens the foundation.

"We could still hear it cooking. It sounded like a campfire; you could hear it crackling," says Gray. "We went as far into the basement as we could without seeing anything. After we got some of it knocked down, we could tell something was still burning, but we weren't able to find it."

A few tense minutes of fear and uncertainty were enough to get Gray thinking of alternatives. Time was wasting. He shouted ahead to Cline and Christian, "Let's back out, and go at this another way."

He didn't think that the fire had reached the sanctuary, and hoped to confine the fire to the lower level and save the sanctuary.

The company exited the basement door on Poplar and regrouped. Gray knew of another set of basement doors, about 30 feet east (away from Second Street), still on the Poplar side. By then, other companies had arrived and streamed steadily into the opened door. Prye sensed the mounting urgency of the mission: "I was outside and it was getting hotter and hotter. Something wasn't looking right. I could feel it. I could just imagine what they were feeling inside."

Drewry, the company's driver, saw the line disappear into the smoke now pouring out of the second doors, as her comrades made their re-entry. The draft from opening the second doors pushed flames out of the first door.

"I couldn't breathe outside," she remembers.

Inside, the company fought more blazes. "Tony opened the nozzle up and started to hit the flames back," says Gray. "It cooled for a couple seconds, but then a wave of intense heat came over us. It felt like bees were stinging us."

"We're Not Gonna Die in Here."

Gray and the others wear "fire-resistant, not fire-proof" gear. The Gore-Tex-lined suits protect firefighters, but Gray leaves the wrist on his left hand exposed.

"That way I can still feel my hand," he explains. "A lot of times, we're so covered up, your adrenaline is going and you don't notice how hot it is."

Indications were all around them that morning. The firefighters use thermal imaging cameras to locate hot spots when fighting an invisible blaze. Co. 1's camera blacked out from the heat as they scanned the church's walls.

"Fire has a life of its own. It can sense danger. When you shoot water at a fire, it tends to run," Gray says.

The condensation on Sesley's mask began to boil. Still, they had no clear shot at the fire.

"I could see up to the pews," Christian remembers, "all the way up through the church." He aimed the nozzle up and shot into the ceiling. When no water splashed back down, they knew that the fire had moved above them. Either the ceiling was gone, or flames in the ceiling burnt so intensely that the water evaporated on contact.

They immediately understood the danger. Gray shouted, "We gotta go, we're not gonna die in here."

After entering the building, Sesley established an egress. As long as he could see light through his exit, he knew that the crew was safe, and likely making progress -- where there's no smoke, there's no fire. He figured they were about 20 feet in when he saw the smoke black the door out. He reached down and felt the line. No movement. He knew that the engine men had stopped pushing forward. He looked up and saw fire moving in on his right, looked back and saw dim light in the doorway, his planned exit. Outside, Chief Prye knew something didn't look right.

"That black smoke was just billowing out," Prye says.

The next thing Sesley heard was, "Get out of here." Gray called it off inside just as Prye radioed in to evacuate, and go "defensive." As Christian, Cline, and Gray turned towards the door, they recognized the severity of the situation. "The smoke was thick and black like train smoke. Thick and black like you could cut it. We were right on top of each other and couldn't see each other," Gray says.

Christian remembers being so far inside that the fire had gotten behind them. Sesley "could barely see the guy" in front of him but made his way to the door with a flashlight to guide others out.

Out on the sidewalk, Chief Prye's anxiety mounted as smoke poured from every window and door. Gray remembers people running, trying to get hose laid, adrenaline pumping: "Your heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up, you have to keep your mind," he explains.

During terrifying moments like these, the firefighter's training helps keep delirious instincts under control. The mental blueprint that helps build the strategy for fighting a fire also provides ideas for retreat. As Gray says, "You want to save what you can save. At the same time, you want the guys you work with to go home that day. If it's starting to get dangerous, you can't just sit there. You're in a lose-lose situation. You know you're losing a building, you don't want to lose a life, too."

Still, navigating a burning building in the dark can be deadly business despite the company's training. Christian, the nozzle man, had to cut through the smoke and heat with water to lead the crew out.

Co. 1 followed the hose and Sesley's flashlight through the maze of blinding heat and coal-black smoke, and burst through the doors onto Poplar.

The company had spent 10 minutes in the church during the initial attack on the fire, and another 10 to 12 after the second entry. Meanwhile, the inferno raged inside the walls of the church building, where it carried out destruction from the inside out, concealed from the firefighters. "That could have been a big loss of life," Prye says today.

"Lord, have mercy on us."

Though Engine Co. 1 had avoided half of a potential "lose-lose situation," the tragic events of the morning had just dawned on Reverend Martha B. Wagley, pastor of First United Methodist.

"The call came to my home about 3:15. Ten minutes later I was there," Wagley says. "My husband and I took Front, heading north. We came to Poplar, and I could see then the magnitude of the flames and the fire. I jumped out. I said, 'Let me out,' and ran down Poplar Avenue."

"The pumpers were all around. I just fell on my knees when I saw the fire. It was just billowing out of the tower. I fell on my knees and just started crying, and saying, 'Lord have mercy on us,'" she recalls. "As I knelt there the tower -- the high steeple with the cross on top -- fell. It toppled over onto Second Avenue."

Firefighters don't stop for moments of potent symbolism. As the cross tumbled into the street, trucks and engines encircled the building like an army laying siege to a fortress.

"We call defensive mode 'surround and drown,'" Prye says. "Everybody's out of the building. Once we're in defensive, we pop the second alarm. Another set of second-alarm companies come in."

Most of the trucks set up about 20 feet from the building. They tried to set up on corners, out of collapse zones. If the building fell, it was going to fall out to the corner. "Plus it gives you more area," Sesley adds. "Where I was positioned, I could hit an entire north wall, and an entire west wall."

"When we pulled up [initially], we went in for quick attack," Christian points out. "If we could have gotten in and got it, then we wouldn't have had to worry about the collapse zone. Once we decided to go defensive, we moved our pumper back. Everybody was in their spots and starting to raise their trucks. We had to move off of Poplar, since we were in a collapse zone," Christian says.

The move quickly turned out to be a wise one. "About four minutes after we had gotten out, the whole building blew," Gray says.

The fire had engulfed the building's skeleton, and devoured all oxygen in the space. The explosion sent windows shattering. Its awesome force sounded "like a river" to Cline, "like a freight train" to Gray.

Prye saw flames shoot out of the windows and lick across the street. "We had 15 guys in that basement, and if we hadn't gone defensive when we did, there would have been a lot of dead firefighters. There would have been no means of rescue," she adds.

"I was there when the front window blew," Wagley remembers. "Some of my congregation were gathered right across from the church on the steps of the Federal Reserve Bank plaza. I went to them and we all tried to console each other and find strength in each other. I kept telling them, 'We're the church,' though we were losing our building."

The blaze sent chunks of burning debris into the wind. After the collapse of the church building, "it looked like it was raining fire," Gray says.

Defense mode swung into crisis mode.

"I stood there at Poplar and Second after we'd gone into defense mode, and happened to look back and it looked like the 100 N. Main Building was on fire on the top floor," Prye says. "We started pulling companies from the church fire and started sending them up to that fire, too."

Engine Co. 1 was among the firefighters dispatched to the next blaze. Embers from the church's rain of fire caught on to the 7-to-12 mph gusts of wind, flew three blocks south, past the Memphis Fire Museum, and ignited the core of the planned development at Court Square. The vacant Lowenstein's Department Store and Lincoln-America Tower sustained severe damage, and the Court Square Annex eventually collapsed. Says Christian: "I thought one bad arsonist" was responsible.

The Court Square project's developers plan to move forward with an altered plan. Insurance helped to defray financial losses, and as one of the developers told The Commercial Appeal as the ruins smoldered: "We're developers, and that's what we do . . . we're the best people to handle the problem."

Meanwhile, Wagley and her congregation drew strength from scripture, especially Isaiah 43:2: "When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you."

Throughout the day, more than 100 church members came to the scene. People told stories about baptisms and marriages. The last person baptized in the church stopped by.

Support for the displaced church arrived immediately. Ministers of Methodist and other churches from around the city came. The president of First Alliance Bank set up an account for donors to the church's recovery.

"We gathered together to pray and sing," Wagley recalls. "At about 5 a.m. one of the reporters asked, 'What are you going to do now?' and I immediately said, 'We're going to worship. On Sunday we're going to have church.' I didn't know where, but I knew that God would lift up the place for us to worship," she said.

Pierre Landaiche, general manager of the Cannon Center, offered that facility as temporary sanctuary. The church pieced itself back together, symbolically, and literally. They recovered the cross that had fallen from atop the old building into the street.

"It was brass, and it was mangled and bent," Wagley says, "but we used it in the first worship service [following the fire] in the Cannon Center. The turnout was fabulous: over 200."

The congregation hasn't missed a Sunday worship service, though they have since moved their temporary sanctuary to the Barry Building on the campus of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. They plan to rebuild, and remain downtown. "We're a resurrection church," Wagley says. "We know the hope of new life."

"We don't know when we'll be able to reopen on that site," Wagley continues. "We're committed to downtown and the urban ministry. We're Methodism's mother church in the city, and our location is very important to the way we do ministry."

A piece of the west wall of the sanctuary remains standing. Nothing else was salvageable. The church plans to begin its rehabilitation with the seemingly more manageable Pepper Building, next door to the sanctuary, which remained structurally intact despite smoke, heat, and water damage to its contents.

So, as Wagley mused, the fire that destroyed the church building from within actually strengthened the congregation.

"What's the body count?"

Back on the street, amid the smoldering rubble, firefighters shot streams of water on to hotspots, keeping a wary eye out for breakout fires. For days after the blaze, in fact, firefighters would remain at the burn sites, just in case. Curious residents from all parts of the city drove down to survey the destruction, to poke at the blackened chunks of debris that covered the streets, and to breathe in the smoky air that lingered in the area long after the flames were doused. City officials were still struggling to find answers, though to date, none have come.

Memphis got lucky that night. The combination of termite-infested wood, vacant buildings with open widows, and wind that carried blazing embers like so many comets across city blocks created the worst fire downtown has ever seen. Even still, the seriousness of the ordeal, and the amazing response from firefighters, became evident with the arrival of an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives which investigates all fires involving churches.

As the ATF agent approached Chief Prye, who was still in command of the scene, he looked at the utter devastation all around him, and assumed the worst.

"What's the body count?" he asked.

"Everybody got out," Prye told him. "We were blessed today." 

Add your comment: