Monday, May 23, 2011

Charleston's Woolworth Building Fire

In the early morning hours of March 4, 1949 patrolman Wayne Casdorph was on duty near the Woolworth's Department Store on Capitol Street when he smelled smoke and noticed a milky color coming from one of the store windows.  He called in the report and shortly thereafter, the old Elizabeth Street Fire Department was the first to arrive on the scene.

The fire, having started in the department store's basement, was deceivingly small at first.  One squad was sent into the first floor with hoses, while another squad was making their way down a back staircase to battle the blaze at the source. Unfortunately, no one could predict just HOW badly the fire had already gotten out of control.  The first floor gave way, sending firemen crashing down into the burning debris of the basement.  Witnesses say men were buried up to their armpits in fiery merchandise, stock, and building debris. Two men, Roy C. Hill and Shawkey Jones, managed to escape out of the basement.  In interviews after the fire, Jones relates the sad tale of desperately trying to pull a fellow firefighter from the rubble onto what was left of the first floor, but the man slipping from his grasp and plunging back down into the inferno.

In total, seven firefighters lost their lives in the blaze.  Those men are:
Frank Miller
Freddie Summers
James Paul (Jiggs) Little
T. Frank Sharp
Richard McCormick
George Coates
Emory Pauley

15 additional firemen were injured, including two who were critically injured: Captain Charles Clendenin, who was overcome by smoke inhalation, and Carl Wiblin, who suffered severe burns.

Of those who passed away, many were WWII veterans who had returned to the Charleston area to work for the fire department.  Two of these men who made this ultimate sacrifice were African American.  According to an invocation at a memorial years later, it was stressed how at the time, these two men, Richard McCormick and George Coates, were not allowed to even SIT at the Woolworth lunch counter.  George Coates is further singled out for honors in this horrific incident.  After the floor collapsed, Coates was able to save one man's life by grabbing him and flinging him out to the alley to safety.  Noticing his partner was missing, Coates went back in after him, never to leave the building alive.  Unfortunately, in the chaos, Coates was unaware that his injured partner had made it safely out of the building and was in an ambulance en route to the hospital.

By noon, the fire was finally under control, and exhausted firemen were said to have wept as the bodies of fallen comrades were removed from the rubble.  In addition to the damage suffered by Woolworth's, the roof of the adjoining Kresge store burned and partially collapsed.  The Fleetwood Hotel, located next to the Kresge, and the Charleston National Bank Building, suffered water and smoke damage.  Total damages were estimated at close to $1 million.

Of course, property damage wasn't the biggest tragedy in this fire.  At the time of the incident, this was known as the nation's worst fire disaster, losing the most firemen in one single blaze.  An impromptu collection was set in place for the victims' families, spurred by an anonymous $200 donation made that same day.  Seven trees were planted along nearby Kanawha Blvd. for the seven fallen firefighters and today, a plaque hangs on the original renovated Woolworth building commemorating the sacrifice these men made.  In addition, a Fallen Firefighters Memorial was erected in 1994 at the Cultural Center on State Capitol Grounds that prominently features the list of these seven men along with all those other heroes who gave their lives in the line of duty.

Whenever there is a tragedy of this magnitude, there is usually a ghost story that goes along with it.  In this case, it is reported that many people working in the newly renovated Woolworth building have had sightings of firemen in 1940s era garb roaming the halls.  Were the emotions of this tragic event so strong as to leave a psychic residue or imprint on the environment available to be picked up by those more in tune to such things?  Or, are the lost souls of this tragedy still roaming the halls, trying to find a way out?

Video taken by the owner of the nearby S. Spencer Moore store
Article from FireFighting News
Article from Kingsport (TN) News

1 comment:

  1. I managed the Woolworth Store in Charleston in the 70's and my employes had seen the fireman. One night the girl in the coffee shop went up to clean the kitchen before going home and in about 5 minutes she was heading out the door. I stopped her and told her she had to clean the kitchen before going home. She told me the firemen cleaned it up for her. I went to the kitchen on the 2nd floor and it was spotless. A few times we could hear them going up and down the steps in the back of the store.
    John Greenlese