When the Gong Rings
A Fire History of Charleston, Illinois
 
79.  FIRE LOG     1952

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Alexander Department Store Fire

ALEXANDER DEPARTMENT STORE HIT BY LIGHTNING; GUTTED

QUARTER-MILLION DOLLAR \
FIRE DESTROYS DEPARTMENT STORE

 

Wednesday, May 7, 1952, would be a normal day except that night, around 8:00 P.M., a terrible lightning storm hit Charleston. Fire Chief John Turner, Firemen Buck Fleming and Melvin Taylor were on-duty that night. The gong would sound for several fires, but the tiny CFD with its two old booster pumpers would be occupied with one of the truly Great Fires of Charleston history, the Alexander Department Store on the S.E. corner of the square. The fire department would have to ignore other calls from Snyder's Appliance that would burn with 50-75% damage and a call at Paul Nees's chicken coop, as well as an alarm at Stitt Appliance Store. All but the Snyder fire were false alarms. The men were very busy on the square with the Alexander's fire. Paris Fire Department would finally arrive and fight the Snyder's Appliance fire. Both Mattoon and Paris Fire Departments were called quickly when the Alexander fire was at the beginning stages. Before the big fire was over, Humboldt, Arcola and Tuscola were involved. Mel Taylor left a large number of very old clippings of this fire, considered the worst in Charleston's history. The clippings and pictures are very faded. Taylor's particular job during the Alexander fire was running one of the main Charleston pumpers.

ALEXANDER'S FIRE STARTS
The blaze started about 8:00 P.M. when lightning struck a television antennae and carried the current down a ground wire to the basement of the building. The blaze appeared to be under control for a short time before it turned into a raging holocaust which roared up a stair well and elevator shaft to the roof about 10:00 P.M. At that time a general alarm was reported and fire units from all the neighboring towns

 mentioned before began to arrive. Mattoon and Paris were first on the scene. At that point the fire turned murky by

 

 

bellowing smoke, and was spurting from all upper story windows. Three refrigerators, outlined sharply against the inferno on the third floor, crashed through as the floor gave way.

FLAMES LEAP FROM THE ROOF

Flames began leaping from the roof and the entire top was ablaze minutes later. Fireman Melvin Taylor said in a later newspaper statement that "the critical point of the fire was reached about 11:00 P.M., when the safety of the building to the north was very much in doubt.

SIX STREAMS OF WATER
Six streams of water were being pumped to the walls and roofs of the blazing area at that time and more water was being played on the rear of the building.

BUILDING PARAPET COLLAPSES

The south wall bulged out and a brick parapet on the top of the building crumpled to the street. Firemen concentrated several hoses on the fire wall between the store and the Bails clothing Store next door (to the north). Streams of water were played constantly on roofs of adjoining buildings.

MIDNIGHT SEES DANGER STOP

By midnight the immediate danger of the fire spreading was stopped, although several spots were still burning hours later. The fire was under control.

THURSDAY, MAY 8 FIRE SMOLDERING

Water was still being poured on the smoldering ruins at 7:30 A.M., Thursday. A board fence was erected around the parking spaces on the west and South sides of the gutted building. Building owner, Walton G. Alexander said a construction company had been called to smash in the rear wall and firemen said possibly the south wall would have to be knocked in. A store spokesman

 

 


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