A Tennessee Tragedy
This is the story of one fatal fire. This fire is not as famous as the blazes that swept 19th Century Chicago or ancient Rome. It did not happen hundreds of years ago. It happened on Christmas Eve 1989 in Johnson City, Tenn., and the fire killed 16 people, including one firefighter.
The John Sevier Center, a high-rise for elderly residents, was built in 1924 as a hotel and converted to an apartment building in the 1970s. Investigators believe the fire started about 5 p.m. in Apartment #102 and ignited a loveseat. From there, the fire traveled up until it reached a dropped ceiling, then spread across the ceiling, getting more intense. The fire continued out of the apartment and across the ceiling above the main hallway smoke detectors to the lobby. Only when enough smoke came down through the ceiling did the detectors in the lobby sound off.
A Late Alarm
The Johnson City Fire Department received the first alarm at 5:17 p.m. and the first units were on the scene within four minutes. Seeing flames on the first floor, firefighters called for more help. But by the time the alarm sounded, swirling smoke had trapped many residents on the upper floors of the 11-story building.
Several factors made fighting this fire and rescuing residents difficult. Outside, the temperature was below freezing and some of the elderly residents were reluctant to leave. A history of “false alarms” may have caused others to ignore any warning sound. Firefighters had to force open exit doors. Sub-zero temperatures froze the portable pump used to refill the firefighters’ air bottles.
Firefighters did not take long to get the fire under control but smoke continued to fill the John Sevier Center, and ventilation and rescue operations lasted another five hours. One victim was found on the 6th floor in the elevator lobby, one in Apartment 107 and the rest, 14 victims, on higher floors in living units. Fifty more people and 15 firefighters were injured.
In all, more than 200 paid and volunteer firefighters, EMTs and others responded on Christmas Eve. Almost every available emergency unit and crew from as far as 70 miles away answered the call. Helicopters from as far away as Virginia helped to move the injured to nearby hospitals.
In a report on the fire, the U.S. Fire Administration also noted:
- Heavy smoke traveled rapidly up elevator shafts and pipe chases, causing most of the victims to die of smoke inhalation, even though the fire was contained to the first two floors.
- The building did not have a sprinkler system. Two months before Christmas Eve, another fatal fire claimed the life of one older man in the same building. The owners decided to install a sprinkler system in spring 1990.
- Fire resistant doors had been installed at the entrance of each apartment but residents complained the doors were too hard to open so many of the automatic door closers were removed.
- Residents, many using crutches, walkers, and canes, tried to use narrow stairways to get out. Others just stayed in their apartments and waited. One couple, found dead, had been sitting in their chairs reading the Bible.
- Because the smoke detectors were on dropped ceilings, they did not activate until the fire had rapidly spread in the space above. Heat detectors installed above the ceiling likely would have provided earlier warning
Two months before the fire, another fire in the same building claimed the life of another elderly man. A break in the pipe chase between floors allowed heavier than usual accumulations of smoke to travel to the upper floors. Fire officials were working with engineers and building officials to convince the owner to bring the building into compliance, stressing how serious the situation was. The city said the John Sevier Center was in compliance after it became a residence but was not in compliance with fire codes in 1989.
This Tennessee tragedy raised questions about whether the building had been properly inspected for conversion to a high-rise residence, whether subsequent renovations had building permits, and whether workloads and time constraints throughout the years prevented thorough follow-up inspections.
The incident also fire officials to review existing structures throughout Tennessee, require stepped up inspections for code compliance and increase education for property owners and managers about the limitations of elderly residents.
*This narrative is paraphrased from the U.S. Fire Administration’s report on the John Sevier Center fire of December 24, 1989. To see the complete report, including the incident report by the Johnson City Fire Department, click here