JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Josephine Eager had a project for her son, Chuck Gee, to finish in Apartment 503 at the John Sevier Center after Gee returned from a Christmas trip in 1989. Juanita Ward was to be a guest of honor as her children and grandchildren celebrated Christmas Day.
Those plans never materialized. The resilient, vibrant women had lived through two world wars, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. But on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, the place they happily called home became a smoke-filled trap from which neither would escape alive.
Nor would Ivan “IV” Atwood, who in 1945 had helped U.S. Army troops cross Germany’s Rhine River in an “inland naval” operation — essentially another D-Day 200 miles from the Atlantic — as a motor machinist’s mate third class.
“I had asked her to come and eat with us Christmas Eve night,” said Ward’s granddaughter, Theresa Greer. “She said, ‘no, I’ll just wait til tomorrow and come.’”
Ward had decided on her nightly routine at the John Sevier – a fried chicken TV dinner followed by strawberry ice cream. “I had to make sure when I went to the grocery store my cart was full of fried chicken dinners and strawberry ice cream,” Greer said.
Eager, Ward’s neighbor four floors up, also had declined an offer to spend Christmas Eve away.
Gee’s mother-in-law had died in Cincinnati, but rather than go north with the family, Eager opted to stay in town for a family tradition – the Christmas Eve service at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church. “Pam and I had an early Christmas at her apartment at the John Sevier and then we left for Cincinnati and mother stayed,” Gee said.
“Products of their time”
Josephine Akeman Eager grew up on a small farm in Missouri, married a soil conservation agent, had two children and was widowed at a young age. When the same thing happened to her son, she moved from her small town Wisconsin home to Johnson City around 1970 to help Gee with his three children, prior to his remarriage.
Juanita Street Ward was born in Buladean, N.C. but lived most of her life in Johnson City. She worked for 30 years at Klopman Mills (now Burlington Park), walking the steep quarter mile to the mill and back to provide for four children she was raising on her own.
Ivan “IV” Atwood was born in Johnson County, Tenn., and moved north for work after serving in World War II. Following his career, he returned to Northeast Tennessee, eventually settling in John Sevier’s Apartment 710. “He was a product of his time,” son Bob Atwood, one of five children, said.
Along with Eager, Ward and Atwood, 13 others perished in the John Sevier fire. Two of the victims – Brian Cozad, 29, and Charlynn Somich, 31, were visiting grandparents. Ten of the dead were 76 or older, with Lora Shook the oldest at 88.
Memories of Eager, Ward and Atwood provide a glimpse into a group of souls who were both products of their time and victims of a time that forever changed a community.
“The rock of the family”
Juanita Ward’s little house was a center of activity when Theresa Greer was a child. Her four children and 10 grandchildren, including Theresa, would head to their grandmother’s on Sunday mornings before attending Southside Baptist Church.
“She always had a smile on her face,” Greer said. “My favorite memory of her was that she always had cathead biscuits and gravy for us to eat before church every Sunday morning.”
Ward babysat young Theresa and they grew very close. “We took the city bus into town if we wanted to go shopping.”
Ward was “the rock of the family,” Greer said. “She loved her job, too, and she worked hard.”
Ward and her granddaughter had grown so close that as Ward’s health declined, Greer became her primary caretaker. Grocery trips had to include plenty of those fried chicken TV dinners and ice cream, which Ward would eat in an apartment that she thought “was a beautiful place to live.
“It was a good place,” Greer said of John Sevier. “She was very happy. She made friends.”
Greer inherited Ward’s cozy two-bedroom house on Wheeler Street. Among the mementoes tucked away there is a simple Christmas ornament. Greer retrieved it from Ward’s apartment after the fire.
“The smell was terrible,” Greer remembered. “She had a little tiny Christmas tree that my Uncle Frank had bought her, and that ornament.”
Greer was downtown that night. Her uncle was a police officer and had called the family to tell them of the fire. “I was so close to my grandma I had to get in the car and go there,” she said.
Greer came upon a chaotic, horrifying scene. She’d soon learn that her grandmother was one of two victims on the first floor. No other people were found below the fourth floor. She remembers ice so thick people could hardly stand, thick black smoke and people calling for help out of windows.
And in a corner first-floor room, men broke open a window after Greer and her cousins insisted their grandmother was unaccounted for. Juanita Ward was inside, face up on the bedroom floor. Hours later, Greer learned the woman who had powered up the steep hill from West Walnut Street to Wheeler Street after work every day had died.
“She would have had to walk six steps to get out the window, but she only made it about three.”
Family members were numbed and exhausted. “Nobody was in the mood to have Christmas, but my daddy said, ‘that’s what your grandmother would have wanted, so we’re going to have Christmas.
“So we opened our gifts. It wasn’t much fun, but it was in honor of her … She thought about other people a whole lot more than herself.”
‘I hope that he wasn’t terrified‘
As a 22-year-old, Ivan Atwood and fellow “inland sailors” in the Navy helped troops cross the last great water barrier into the heart of Germany in 1945 with “another amphibious Navy D-Day” on the Rhine. On Christmas Eve, 1989, the one-time motor machinist’s mate third class who had helped make naval history and overcome a trial by water was himself overcome during a trial by fire.
It was Donna Atwood Duffy’s 36th birthday. She, her husband and her children lived in Franklin, Va., but had seen “IV,” as the Johnson County native was known, that summer and had a great visit. “He had a wonderful sense of humor,” Duffy said.
“I got home from church and the phone rang and they said there has been a fire at the John Sevier Center,” Duffy said. The callers didn’t yet know who had failed to make it out of the building and said to call back later. “I just remember thinking, ‘oh my God, I hope it’s not him. I hope it’s not him.’”
An old General Electric clock hangs on Bob Atwood’s kitchen wall in Denver, keeping perfect time. It’s a daily physical reminder of IV, who died in Apartment 710. He was 68.
“He was a very honest, humble, wholesome man,” Atwood said of his father. Like so many rural Appalachian residents, the elder Atwood went north for work after the war, settling in the Cleveland area.
“He was a blue-collar worker. He did machining and lots of different trade jobs,” Atwood said.
Those included work at General Electric’s lamp division, said Duffy, the oldest of the five children. She remembers her dad as a good cook who was “full of fun. He had a very dry wit.”
Duffy said one of her childhood memories involves annual holiday trips to Cleveland’s Nela Park, which would feature Christmas lights made by GE. “It was a big deal to get in the car and ride around and see this all lit up,” she said.
Ivan Atwood moved back to Northeast Tennessee in 1971, around the time Duffy was finishing high school, after he and the children’s mother divorced.
Bob Atwood said he enjoyed visiting what he called “God’s country.” His visit in 1989 wasn’t so enjoyable, but he stuck around and went to his dad’s apartment with his cousin. “We got out what we could carry of dad’s belongings,” he said.
The “man of his time,” who returned unscathed from his war service – along with all six of his brothers – was laid to rest in the Mountain Home National Cemetery. “We had a beautiful funeral where the military guard came out.”
Duffy said she remembers being “on auto pilot” in the immediate aftermath. Months later, she realized the experience wasn’t going to leave her. “I remember going down the street about six months later. I heard a fire truck and it took me right back to that terrifying time.”
Atwood was a smoker and had emphysema. Duffy said he never complained about his home or his condition. “He was not a complaining man,” Duffy said. “His mother was living then and when we would talk it was always about her and how good she was doing. He was more concerned about her than he was about himself.”
Atwood wasn’t fast on stairs, Duffy said. “I hope that he wasn’t terrified, knowing that he didn’t have the lung capacity.”
‘A good place for her to be’
Josephine Akeman grew up an only child with “one cow and some chickens” on what Chuck Gee called a small “self-sustaining farm” just outside Columbia, Mo. She met Gee’s father William when he was a student at the University of Missouri and the couple eventually settled in Wisconsin with their two young children. William Gee died suddenly in 1946.
Though she remarried, Eager was single again when she moved to Johnson City. “She bought a little home … near where we lived and enjoyed some time with her grandchildren and us,” Gee said. “My first wife died in 1975, so mother was helping me raise some kids til I got remarried to Pam Johnson Gee.”
In the early ‘80s, Eager had decided to downsize and the John Sevier, recently converted to a senior living highrise, stood out.
“Mother liked to walk, and she walked all around the area and downtown,” Gee said. “My sister and I made a decision with mother that this looked like a good place for her to be, and I think it was.
“She had a lot of friends there and she enjoyed the monthly programs the center had. Common meals together and some bingo nights – things like that.”
The move also put Eager just across the street from Munsey, where she was an active member.
“In fact, I would say she was a very active person for that age,” Gee said. “She didn’t necessarily work at being active, but she stayed busy all the time.”
That may be why a celebratory Christmas Eve at Munsey held more appeal than a long car trip to Cincinnati. Whatever the reason, Gee said he and Pam had an early Christmas with Eager at her apartment – and that’s when she left him with a project.
“The closet had no light in it, and she’d asked me to put something in,” Gee said. He told his mother he’d get to it when they returned from Cincinnati. “We gave her a flashlight and made sure it had batteries in it. I’m sure she was one of the people that was at the window waving a flashlight or something but never got detected or they couldn’t get to her on the fifth floor.”
A free final flight
Instead, the Gees got a 4 a.m. phone call and drove home from Cincinnati. Gee said the funeral home told them a church member had identified Eager’s body. Gee went to the funeral home for some final arrangements, where a worker took him over to one of several bodies.
“He said, ‘let me show you your mother,’ and I went over and I said, ‘well, this is not my mother.’ And he said, ‘well, it is.’ The tag said Josephine Eager. And I said, ‘well I’m just telling you it’s not my mother.’”
Not long after, the funeral home received a phone call. Another woman’s body had been taken to Kentucky – that woman was Josephine Eager.
“So we had a funeral without a body, they had a funeral without a body. We had a memorial service. Bodies were flown. My mother liked to fly, so her last flight was a flight being transported to Johnson City, and then from Johnson City we flew her to Kansas City and transported her to Midway to be buried.”
Gee said he didn’t take the mix-up as insult on top of injury. “They had, what, 16 bodies or something and they just didn’t get them tagged right. It was hard and in a way it was kind of funny. In an unusual way. But we had a nice memorial service.”
Moving forward without bitterness
Questions about negligence arose quickly in the tragedy’s aftermath. An attorney approached Gee, who joined a lawsuit that resulted in what he called a small settlement. “It was an accident that happened. Shouldn’t have, hoped they’d learn from it, but that was it.”
Gee had lost his father suddenly, his first wife, and now his mother, but he said he and his kids both handled the tragedy well. “We’re kind of calm people. I don’t know that I would say you assume it’s the Lord’s work but there had to be some of that in there, because it just happened and our life went on.”
Duffy wouldn’t acknowledge her own birthday for years after the event. “That kind of did a number on my head for a long time, but I’ve come to realize that was the circle of life and that’s the way it unfolded.”
“He couldn’t get out of a burning building,” she added. “It’s just tragic and I hope that things have been changed — that some good came out of it.”
On Wheeler Street, Theresa Greer now cares for her mother where her grandma’s smile once lit up every room she entered. “I’m honored I got to keep her house,” Greer said. “Every day is a reminder of her.” She said she’s never harbored anger or bitterness about what happened.
“I hated the fact that it happened that way, but it’s just the wrong place at the wrong time. I think it kind of brought us closer together. Because cousins I didn’t see, we all get together a couple times a year.”
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