ÐEngine 5 and Aerial 5 respond to a four alarm building fire, 615 E. Market, at the
Salvation Army building.“ It is very rare for the guys from 5’s to make it to a downtown
building fire. We had been watching the glow over the tree line and listening to the
progress of the fire on the radio. Ordinarily, we would switch the radio to ”alert’ at 8:00
PM. Tonight, we have left the radio set to ”monitor’ so we could tell what was going on.
As we headed north for the long run downtown, it was clear things were out of hand.
Before we cross Pawnee, flames are occasionally visible above the trees. It is a giant
fire. Arriving on Market, red and white rotating beacons mix with smoke to make
swinging swords of light flashing everywhere. Engines and ladder pipes have even
found their way to the overhead railroad tracks. Surrounding the shell of the old hulk is
all the spare equipment still fit for use for firefighting. The old building is reduced to a
pen, a corral with a caged monster. The stiff Kansas breeze has whipped the air into
whirlwind of fire walking and kicking at the walls.
I have seen little fire funnels before, in a trashcan or a dumpster, but now, a living,
breathing, walking and above all, an eating demon, is consuming all the wood and tar
and paper and punk board that goes into the guts of an old building. The heavy brick
walls are notched for the heavy timbers that held the floors. The timbers were ”fire cut’.
The beveled ends of the timbers pull out of the notches without levering the walls into
rubble. Instead, floor after floor and finally the tar roof have fallen into the basement
leaving just an open top box of bricks. All the windows are consumed or melted. All the
glass is gone from the walls. The wind enters these openings and whips the villain into
an eating frenzy. The rotating tube of fire roars. The roof is doing just what a roof should
do. It is repelling water from the burning debris under it. The fire is so hot, water falling
into the building is beaten back as steam. Those of us operating nozzles from ladders
are impressed with the sound of the beast when it comes near. The noise is like a jet
airplane throttled up for takeoff.
Aerial 5 is setting up in the space between the building and the raised railroad. Too
close, I think but no chief asks a firefighter. In fact, the area around the building is so
crowded with engines and aerials, there is little other space to place more equipment.
The monster is in an oscillation, now. Dropping out of sight then jumping straight up 300
- 400 feet. A shower of embers is windswept hair pouring out of the top of the funnel
whenever it reaches it full height. The bricks are now beginning to crumble and
disintegrate. A crack runs from foundation to top edge at the northeast corner. The
people occupying that section of wall are making a hasty retreat as the wall grows more
unstable. The fissure grows wider at the top for five minutes before the wall begins to
fall. It comes apart and reaches out further than the wall is high. Bricks are pelting Aerial
5. The crew has seen the wall falling. They are refugees on the far side of the aerial.
The beast has broken his pen and now the monster explores the world beyond his
walls. The flame lashes the aerial with its fiery scourge. But, it is a last gasp. The walls