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VOL. 121 | NO. 198 | Monday, October 9, 2006

ON FIRE

Downtown blaze claims historic buildings

By Zachary Zoeller

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UP IN SMOKE: Memphis firefighters douse the Lowenstein/Rhodes Jennings Building at 66 N. Main St. after battling a blaze that ravaged four Downtown buildings Friday morning. The fire started at the First United Methodist Church at 204 N. Second St. around 2:30 a.m., and flying embers from the church ignited the Rhodes Jennings Building, the 22-story Lincoln-American Tower at 60 N. Main and the Court Street Annex at 110 N. Court around 4 a.m. -- Photo By Brad Johnson

Fire blazed through several buildings in Downtown Memphis around 3 a.m. Friday, sending firefighters, employees of nearby businesses and residents scrambling.

It reportedly began at the 113-year-old First United Methodist Church at Second Street and Poplar Avenue, and flaming embers flew through the air to ignite the nearby Lincoln American Tower, Rhodes Jennings Building and Court Square Annex at North Main and Court streets.

When the church's floor collapsed during the early morning blaze, firefighters pulled out, and only the steeple and part of the church's façade remained standing by the time the fire was contained.

No civilians or firefighters were injured by the three-alarm fire, but one firefighter possibly was treated for fatigue, said Alvin Benson, deputy chief of the Memphis Fire Department. More than 150 firefighters responded to the call.

The church's fire began shortly before 2:30 a.m., and the two buildings on North Main caught fire around 4 a.m., Benson said. The fire was under control before 8 a.m.

The buildings were vacant but reportedly were being refurbished for condominiums and a grocery store.

"I certainly consider it a success when people don't get hurt," he said.

The Court Square Annex likely will be demolished, and the fire department will consult a structural engineer to determine if the other two can be saved, Benson said.

More than half of the building of law firm Burch, Porter and Johnson PLLC, adjacent to the destroyed Court Square Annex, sustained extensive water damage.

"It's pretty well soaked," said partner Charles Newman.

The building's roof collapsed in two or three places, undoubtedly letting water in the fourth floor, where the firm keeps its closed files, said attorney Doug Halijan.

But opinions varied on how damaged the files really are.

"I'm going to presume that everything in those file cabinets up there are maybe waterlogged," Halijan said.

Newman was more optimistic, saying, "Most of the filing cases are pretty waterproof. The thing we're most worried about are papers lying out."

Regardless of the damage, the firm will be open for business as usual.

"It'll be a mess to work around, but not anything that will affect our operations," Halijan said. "We'll be fine."

General Sessions Court and Circuit Court were closed Friday because of their proximity to the fires, but the General Sessions clerks remained open. Last Friday's cases were postponed until this Friday.

Judge Kenny Armstrong was the only chancellor working at Chancery Court, and Probate Court was open at 10 a.m.

At 7 a.m., Homeland Security officers evacuated General Sessions Court, and because of its old ventilation system, smoke traveled through its offices, said court employee Anie Kent. Employees were allowed back in at 7:30 a.m. and the public at 9:30 a.m.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 0 131 1,047
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 19 170
BUILDING PERMITS 0 305 3,056
BANKRUPTCIES 20 118 736
BUSINESS LICENSES 27 53 329
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0