Five firefighters were hurt and three families displaced after a fire ripped through downtown Eminence early Sunday morning, but all directly involved consider themselves lucky.
“The potential was there for it to be much, much worse,” said Eminence Fire Chief Gary Lucas.
While patrolling the downtown area shortly after midnight, an Eminence police officer spotted smoke near the 5000 block of South Main Street. He called Kentucky State Police to dispatch Eminence Fire Department. As soon as the call went out, Lucas was in communication with the officer, learning all he could even before he got on the scene.
“We have the luxury of having a great working relationship with the police department,” Lucas said. “I got on the radio and he told me exactly what he was seeing. We’ve talked about this block in terms of what if. We have a plan. I knew where to park every truck before I even got there.”
Lucas immediately called for support from other departments in the county to fight the fire that started in an upstairs apartment bedroom over what used to be Ann’s Kut ‘n Kurl. Initially Lucas was fearful the tenant might be in danger and require a rescue, but it was soon discovered that no one was inside the building. There were people in the building next door, in apartments over the recently opened Johnson Flooring Company. Everyone was evacuated with no injuries.
“That’s always the first priority,” Lucas said. “Get everybody out. Then I have to worry about my people, keeping my people safe.”
Lucas assumed command of the scene, managing between 50 and 75 firefighters. He requested support from Shelby County Fire Department, who brought two ladder trucks to the scene that could attack the flames from above the roofline.
As the fire burned, it traveled to the building next door, creeping into the attic. At one point, smoke and gases built up inside the building, leading to a blow out.
“We call it a smoke explosion,” Lucas said. “It blew out the windows and some bricks on the alley side of the building.”
Three firefighters suffered minor injuries when the explosion blew them off a ladder leaned against the building. The most serious injury was a cut on the arm.
All three were treated at the scene.
Firefighters battled the fire for hours, finally gaining the upper hand early the following morning.
When the sun came up, it was apparent the two buildings were a total loss.
“They’re both structurally damaged,” Lucas said. “They’ll have to come down.”
That means two businesses and five apartments in historical buildings will be gone, along with all the belongings and property inside.
The American Red Cross found temporary housing for the three displaced families and helped replace medications for one individual.
Chad Johnson of Johnson Flooring Company recently celebrated a grand opening.
“We had just gotten everything finished – replaced the floor, painted, all our displays,” Johnson said. “Everything is ruined.”
Although the fire was relatively contained to the upstairs portion of his building, the first floor business suffered heavy smoke and fire damage, and a large section of ceiling caved in.
“It could have been so much worse. I’m just so glad no one was seriously hurt,” Johnson said. “I stayed and watched all night long. There were over 50 firefighters working all night long, putting themselves in danger. They did a great job, and I really appreciate that.”
Johnson has already rented another storefront in town and will set about starting over. Most of his tools and inventory were not kept at the building on South Main, and he was back on a job Monday morning. He’ll have to re-order thousands of dollars of displays and samples and get another storefront ready to house his business, but he remains hopeful and optimistic.
“I’m still in business. I’m working today,” Johnson said. “Give me about a week or two and I’ll be ready for another grand opening.”
There were a few other casualties of the fire, but none too serious.
The business on the other side of the red apartment building, Eminence Cleaners, suffered smoke and water damage, but no fire or structural damage. The business remains closed pending cleanup.
While providing traffic control for the fire, an Eminence Police Department vehicle was struck by a car. The driver, who according to police was unable to perform any field sobriety tests, was arrested for DUI because he was so intoxicated. The officer was not hurt.
While Lucas and a KSP arson investigator were inside the building Sunday afternoon to begin the process of determining the cause of the fire, Lucas suspected a rekindle. Firefighters were called back to the scene at about 1 p.m. to check for hot spots. At that time, a fourth firefighter was injured when he stepped on a nail. He was treated at the scene. A fifth firefighter was injured when he fell through the floor. He was transported to the hospital, where he was checked out, treated and released.
And Main Street will be forever changed.
“We are very lucky, very blessed,” Lucas said. “The potential was there for the fire to go the other way. I’m pleased that we contained it as well as we did. Everything fell into place.”
The state fire marshal will make the official determination as to the soundness of the structures and whether they must be demolished, but Lucas believes both buildings are still in danger of collapse.
A safety fence will be constructed around the buildings until the fire marshal’s ruling.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.