Johnson City firefighters battled a large fire which destroyed most of a three-unit condominium Friday morning but did not harm the two men who were inside when the blaze began.
Seven fire engines and two ladder trucks responded to 1104 E. 9th St. at about 9:50 a.m. to find 20- to 30-foot-high flames shooting from the structures’ roof. Firefighters finally doused the flames at about 11 a.m., and many received treatment for dehydration and exhaustion made worse by the high heat and humidity.
JCFD Lt. David Harrison said several cats and dogs that were inside the two-story building were killed by the heat and smoke. The two people who were inside made a relatively quick exit from the building and were unharmed. Harrison said extra engines and off-duty firefighters were called into action when the first round of firefighters arrived and realized they needed help to deal with the fire’s size and strength.
“One of the units was extensively damaged, and firefighters are doing a second search of the building,” Harrison said as tired firefighters began to roll up hoses and make their way out of the building. “We have no idea what started the fire and the fire marshal will be investigating the cause.”
One of the two men that were inside when the fire erupted wrapped his beloved pets in a blanket and placed them in his vehicle as soon as he could get closer to the building.
“My dogs and cats died in there,” said a distraught Bo Bryson. “A neighbor called me and I went outside straight away. When I came out, it didn’t look that bad. But the fire grew to a huge size in minutes.”
Neighbors and friends of those who live at the condominiums looked on from all sides of the building. Some held their hands on their cheeks and others hugged the men who escaped as well as their fellow neighbors.
Mike Osborn, who just happened to be driving by, said he saw smoke and pulled his vehicle over.
“I saw the smoke and stopped right in front of the building,” he said. “Me and another guy beat on the door of first unit (No. 1), but I think he’d gotten out. Then, we went to the other unit (No. 2) and kicked at the door. I guess he was in the shower or asleep at the time, but he got out.”
Paul St. John was in that unit when the fire started.
“I was asleep upstairs,” he said while standing clear while firefighters battled the blaze. “Someone knocked at the door pretty hard. I grabbed the cat and a suitcase. I couldn’t even tell there was a fire from the inside. My wife just showed up. I’m going to stay here and see what happens. My parents live here (Johnson City), and I’ll probably stay with them.”
The heat inside the building became so intense and the smoke so toxic, that firefighters were told to evacuate the building during the early stages of the 70-minute fire. The fire department also called to the scene its rehabilitation unit, staffed by Johnson City/Washington County EMS medics to administer oxygen, supply water and to cool off firefighters in a specially equipped vehicle.
The fire stretched across the entire length of the roof and burned through windows on the second floor. The flames, which crawled down the side of the building and engulfed a children’s playhouse, seemed to have been conquered several times. But flames blasted up from various points on the roof rising about 20 feet again and again prompting firefighters to try different approaches to douse the fire.
“There’s still a lot of flare ups, and it’s really hot in there,” Assistant Chief Chris Williams told Harrison during the harried effort to kill the flames.
At one point, one ladder truck was placed on the north side and another on the south side. Another strategy was to blast water from all four sides. Meanwhile, firefighters all around building were seen hunched over and breathing heavily. Some held bottled water in each hand; others knelt on the ground gasping for air.
Finally, at about 11 a.m., a call came over Harrison’s radio that flames were no longer visible.
At this point, firefighters used ladders to climb up to the second story where they broke through windows to conduct a general search and put out any lingering flames.
Mary Knowlden, a widow who lives in the third unit with her son, came running up to the building but was held back by firefighters for safety reasons. She gasped, held her hands to her mouth and wept.
“I was not here but got a call that there was a fire,” she said as she stood on a hill with neighbors. “I have four indoor cats, but they’re OK. But my son — he comes home from the military tomorrow. I’ve been getting his room ready. I’m just thankful everyone’s all right.”
The American Red Cross arrived at the location and offered assistance.
“There were five families involved, and they all had insurance,” said Glenda Bobalik, Northeast Tennessee American Red Cross executive director. “We will be providing shelter for two families, and a total of four people. They will likely stay at local hotels for a few days. Everyone has different needs. Some will need clothing and food, and we’ll help them with that. We’ll also help any medications that need replacing if necessary.”