Sevier Center fire one of worst in city's history

Nathan Baker • Updated Sep 22, 2019 at 8:00 AM

On Christmas Eve, 1989, one of the most destructive and deadly man-made disasters in Johnson City’s history tore through the John Sevier Center.

A fire started by a burning cigarette left on a love seat climbed the 10-story apartment building, killing 16 people — most in their 70s and 80s — and testing the limits of local firefighters.

It might be considered the “perfect storm” of fires — it happened in the late afternoon in the tallest building in the city with single-digit temperatures outside.

The fire started in Apartment 102 and traveled out of the apartment and across the ceiling to the main lobby, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency report about the fire. Although the first alarm was delayed because the smoke had traveled at ceiling level — above the hallway smoke detectors — the fire was confined to the lower two floors of the building.

Swirling smoke trapped many of the occupants on the upper floors before any they could hear any notification or alarm.

Available emergency units and crews from as far as 70 miles away answered the call. Helicopters from as far away as Virginia helped move the injured from the fire scene to nearby hospitals.

On the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in 2014, retired fire chief Mark Finucane told the Press the flames spread from the piece of furniture and up into the drop ceiling, where it burned for nearly a half-hour before a smoke detector gave the first warning.

As residents leaned out their apartment windows into the chilly night air to avoid the smoke, city firefighters scrambled to reach them with ladder trucks and a crane.

“A lot of lives were saved that night for a couple of reasons. It was Christmas Eve and a lot of residents were out. The other reason is the firefighters did a great job in rescuing a number of people, especially from the upper floor,” he said.

Those who made it out stood out in the cold and watched as their homes burned.

Munsey United Methodist Church canceled its Christmas Eve services and opened its doors for those needing shelter. The church also became a point of contact for those checking on their relatives and friends who lived in the Sevier Center.

Firefighters worked round the clock with little rest in freezing cold to extinguish the fire. Some rescue workers were at the scene for two days.

The city’s Walmart store opened on Christmas Day so residents could replace some of their clothes and items lost in the fire.

Johnson Citians watched on the local television station as the horror unfolded and the death toll tallied. To this day, many remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the monstrous fire.

In response to the disaster, Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation setting certification requirements for municipal fire inspectors.

The deaths:

1. Juanita Ward, 76, Room 107

2. Fred Kidd, 66, Room 801

3. Ivan Atwood, 68, Room 710

4. Carmen Baughan, 79, Room 1007

5. Lori Carlisle, 78, Room 510

6. Brian Cozad, 29, Room 1007

7. Ethel Francis, 76, Room 608

8. William Carl Ogburne, 51, Room 813

9. Cleo Range, 89, Room 704

10. Doris Riening, 72, Room 813

11. Emma Shade, 85, Room 108

12. Blanche Shell, 83, Room 604

13. Ethel Shelton, 80, Room 803

14. Lora Shook, 88, Room 403

15. Carolyn Somitch, 31, 6th Floor Elevator Lobby

16. Josephine Eager, 82, Room 503

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