JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- His 85-foot elevating snorkel device extended to its full length, Paul Holder butted a 16-foot roof ladder into the snorkel’s bucket, climbed to a 9th-story window and rescued a panicked woman far above the icy streets. Rookie firefighter Danny Jones battled the flames and searing heat for hours. Hampton Volunteer Fire Department’s Greg Largent and his brother, Heath, stumbled through corridors of choking smoke and thick darkness, sometimes leading people out to safety, other times coming up empty or carrying bodies.
Led by community health nurse Beth Brown, ordinary parishioners worked a triage center inside Munsey Memorial church, where the choir’s soaring voices would not be heard praising a savior’s birth this Christmas Eve. Someone brought cases of dry socks from a local textile mill. Restaurants sent food. Two people opened and closed Munsey’s main door, again and again, to help keep warm air in and cold air out. Paty Lumber’s owner brought space heaters to offset the heat loss of those doors that opened constantly as first responders, volunteers and worried family members streamed in and out of the church. Director Gail Campbell opened the Johnson City Public Library building, unaware of just how important the space would become.
Those committing them probably didn’t see it that way, but amidst the chaos and unfolding tragedy of Christmas Eve 1989, many acts of heroism and sacrifice occurred in downtown Johnson City.
Paul Holder was 51 and just a few years from retirement when driver Charles Hawkins maneuvered their American LaFrance truck with an 85-foot snorkel extension down Roan Street. The temperature had been 17 degrees at 5:11 p.m., when the alarm came in to 911.
“I seen smoke coming through the top of the John Sevier and I knew the smoke had run all the way through,” Holder said. “That meant you had to get it into gear fast. If you’re going to do anything at all, it’s got to be done fast – you might say fast and furious.”
After hearing that a woman needed rescued from a 9th-floor window, Hawkins positioned the truck and elevated the snorkel to its full height. Holder had left his gloves at the bottom of the truck, but reached out barehanded to grasp a 16-foot roof ladder that had been attached to the boom.
“You have to concentrate on one thing at a time,” Holder said. “My job was (to) rescue the lady in the window, which I was successful, by the help of God. Getting her to safety was my main concern at that time.”
The woman was beginning to panic at that point, Holder said. A man with her (her brother, it turned out), helped coax her onto the ladder and she and Holder descended to the snorkel bucket. The brother and their mother were later rescued by the JCFD’s 100-foot ladder truck.
“She kinda got a death grip on me, and I reasoned with her – I said, ‘lady, put your hand right here, and your other hand right here, we’re going down to the ground. You’re safe.”
After that night, Holder never spoke with or met the woman he rescued. WJHL has learned it was Linn Abbott-Jennings, who was visiting her mother, Texie Hamrick. After that rescue, a doctor ordered that Holder be transported to North Side Hospital due to his exposure to the cold. “I wanted to go back,” Holder said. “I wanted to stay until the whole job was done.”
Fortunately, there was no shortage of available help. A state fire marshal’s report lists the presence of 64 Johnson City firefighters, 61 Johnson City police officers (who were cross-trained for fire emergencies), and another 125 emergency medical technicians, professional and volunteer firefighters and rescue squad personnel.
Three of those volunteers were Greg Largent, his brother Heath and their stepfather, Bud Glover, of the Hampton Volunteer Fire Department.
The brothers’ service began with a great success. Once staged, they immediately went to work rescuing people from fourth and fifth-story windows. Largent secured a ladder for his brother, who rescued one woman, and then they reversed roles. “We were fortunate to get a second lady out of the window,” Largent said.
From there, the pair entered the building, where they encountered near blackness their lights couldn’t penetrate and had no idea of the layout. “In today’s fire prevention you pre-plan a building,” Largent said. “You know where the stairwells are, you know what potential hazards lay before you – I had no clue.”
The men navigated those hazards, which ranged from visibility and smoke to the cold when they’d go outside and at one point his air regulator freezing. What they and their compatriots couldn’t do was save everyone.
The Largents rescued four people. But they also recovered three bodies, including those of a grandmother and grandson – Carmen Baughan and Brian Cozad – who they had been unable to reach earlier.
“They were above our ladders and we just couldn’t get to them,” Largent said. At 10:05 p.m., Heath Largent located Cozad’s body near the window of Apartment 1007. Seconds later, Largent himself found Baughan dead near her bed, a moist towel over her face. Baughan and Cozad were on the highest floor where any bodies were recovered. One of the two was among eight bodies tested for carbon monoxide saturation and blood cyanide, and had a blood cyanide level of 2.3 micrograms per milliliter – more than double the lethal amount.
Largent said he’s never been able to put the encounter out of his mind. “When you have someone crying for help and there’s nothing you can do – you’re doing the best you can – that never leaves you.”
Doug Grove-DeJarnette is the only current Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church staff member who was in ministry (as music minister) when the fire occurred. On that Christmas Eve, he had headed to church for one of the biggest services of the year. Priorities changed quickly at the direction of senior pastor Charles Lipps. “When you’ve got a tragedy and a disaster happening right across the street, it would have been almost unthinkable for us to say, ‘well, we’ll see what we can do after we finish church.’”
Weeks of preparation suddenly became unimportant as people stumbled from the high rise across the street, many without having put on warm clothes. Whether Munsey’s beloved pipe organ and choirs would blend in soaring melodies toward the high ceilings didn’t matter with sirens and shouting symbolizing the chaos just outside the doors.
DeJarnette said the initial task was to set up a warm place for those rescued and the first responders. As that took place, he said, “somebody says, ‘they (firefighters) need dry socks,’ and so somebody brought in cases of socks from one of the mills here.”
That gesture was among many small but meaningful examples of how dozens of ordinary people didn’t get in the way, but neither did they decide there was nothing they could do and head home. As folks worked, restaurants sent food, and some families even brought Christmas dinners in to share. The American Red Cross also set up its operations there.
On site, DeJarnette said, “Everybody was pretty task-oriented.” People tended to the needs of firefighters and other first responders putting their lives on the line in the bitter cold. Paty Lumber Co. donated space heaters, without which, DeJarnette said, the church’s heating system wouldn’t have been able to keep up.
Others had specific skills that proved highly valuable. The late Beth Brown, a community health nurse, quickly realized injured people would be entering the church. Brown organized crews for various tasks and selected rooms and other spaces for treatment and triage.
“She organized all of that,” DeJarnette said. “It was just a skill set that she had because it was part of her training and part of her background.”
Communication was another critical element of the work that night – particularly as the fire’s severity became evident. A call had gone out for residents’ family members to call the church to let them know whether someone had been away from the building. The church’s communications team also had information from the authorities about the dead and injured.
Those heroes’ jobs weren’t easy, either. DeJarnette said he remembers a family coming in looking for a mother or grandmother, and a volunteer seeing the resident’s name on a list of the dead.
“When that first family came in it was like, ‘you know, this isn’t going to be the last one of these and there are going to be a lot of people who are going to be really, really sad this Christmas,’” DeJarnette said.
As a worship minister, DeJarnette would have played a central role in the evening’s celebrations. He played a central role anyway.
“There was a whole lot of Jesus’ life that came after the baby was born and a whole lot of information and teaching that was given to us about how to be a faithful disciple. That night the church was really the church it should be.”
The Sevier Center was so hot inside, then-rookie JCFD firefighter Danny Jones said, he noticed melted carpet hanging off his gear when he left the building after an initial attack. “You couldn’t even touch your own coat it was so hot,” Jones said.
Jones’s gloves also stuck together from melted carpet and fibers. But the heat was just one element of an overall nightmare scenario. Cold that plunged into single digits also took its toll on firefighters.
“Some of the things they did, in the weather conditions – it was insane,” Jones said of colleagues like Holder who made outdoor rescues. For his part, Jones plunged in to attack the fire early on, battling heat that melted his helmet’s face shield and left him with burns to the side of his face.
“You can feel the heat sort of stretch your skin, you can feel it burning,” Jones said. “I knew because it got very hot on that initial attack.”
Jones said the smoke and darkness were difficult for the firefighters, but they were trained and ready. Those who had been in the center readying for a pleasant holiday were blindly groping for a way out, and the elevators weren’t working.
“The visibility was okay … and then it started to go away, and then it went to zero,” Jones said. He said some residents and visitors tried to find their way out, but not everyone took that chance. Instead, they waited on rescuers like the Largents.
“Some of them tried to stay in the room for us to get them out,” Jones said. “Some of ‘em we didn’t get out.”
The cold ultimately ended Jones’s night, along with that of many colleagues sent to a local hospital. The probable onset of hypothermia and his burns took Jones out of commission sometime after 11 p.m.
Jones said he couldn’t help but replay the night afterward. “Everyone that was there thinks that, you know, ‘could I have done this, could I have done that,’ and that bothers people. It bothers me to think of … second time in, should I have tried to go a different way. Things like that bother me.”
When she drove downtown with her husband, City Manager John Campbell, and their 7 and 10-year-old children, Gail Campbell thought they’d look around a bit and then go to the grocery store. Instead, the Johnson City Public Library interim director spent four hours in the chaos, opening the library, creating makeshift body tags, making her self-acknowledged bad coffee, and even managing to film minutes of astounding video footage.
With emergency vehicles lined up Roan Street from one end to the other, Campbell quickly realized the library could prove a valuable warming center. Then the body count began, and officials told Campbell they’d need to bring the dead into the library.
“I took my little children into the back and I said, ‘bad things have happened and some people have apparently died in this fire and we’re going to have to be very quiet and very good because their families might be coming and they’re going to be upset and it’s going to be very sad,'” Campbell said. “And my children just went straight to the back and were very quiet and very good. I think the whole thing just kinda freaked them out and they have a very healthy respect for fire to this day. It was not a fun Christmas Eve.”
It was, however, a time for the only library employee in town and with a key to step up — and Campbell did. She allowed the normally hushed and peaceful building to become not just a morgue but a communications center, including for reporters from far and wide.
Nearby, three covered bodies lay juxtaposed with the library’s nearby Christmas tree. Campbell said police chaplain Ed Jefferies came to her saying they needed toe tags. She found some old catalog cards and some fishing wire from a children’s display, “and they went off with it.”
Firefighters occasionally walked through, warming up. “I had my big coffee pot going and that was a joke because I don’t make good coffee, but I made a bunch of coffee. People drank it.”
At one point she took her kids outside as a helicopter landed. They could see people in the windows, Campbell said, and they asked why the ladder truck wasn’t getting this or that person. “I’m saying, ‘they’ll get everybody as fast as they can. They’re working on it.'”
Eventually, officials moved the bodies to the Downtown Centre, and the library’s maintenance man, Billy Gardner, came down and relieved Campbell. It was about 9:30 p.m. The four hours she’d spent downtown “felt like 10 minutes,” Campbell said.
She took the children home, while John Campbell — who had broken his arm but didn’t yet know it — didn’t get home until about 3 a.m. “The last thing he told me when I was leaving to go home was that it could be really, really bad.”
Campbell said she didn’t really think about heroism in the moment, and the magnitude of the tragedy makes it hard to be overly enthused even about the most heroic acts.
Everybody was just running around doing their jobs. I think to see some of those firemen who just looked so young, and they looked so tired and so exhausted sitting in the library just exhausted, taking their boots off so they could just sit there for a minute, and you knew they’d been in there.
“And you knew they saw bad things. They had found people in the hallways, so it was horrible.”
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