Christmas Eve fire at the John Sevier: 30 years later

John Sevier Fire
This article is one in a series on the Dec. 24, 1989 fire that killed 16 people at the John Sevier Center (Click here for more.)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The candles were ready for lighting and the choirs were ready to sing at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church’s Christmas Eve service. Across the street, Josephine Eager was in her apartment at the John Sevier Center, getting ready to enjoy the church’s candlelight service. Johnson City’s fire chief and city manager were preparing for Christmas with their families. Theresa Greer was looking forward to a Christmas morning visit from her beloved grandmother, Juanita Ward, who had elected to spend Christmas Eve at home in the John Sevier.

Juanita Ward and her granddaughter Theresa Greer, 1962.

Nothing went according to plan on the bitterly cold Christmas Eve of 1989. Raging flames and thick, toxic smoke supplanted candlelight. Sirens, shouts and cries for help filled the air and no choirs sang at Munsey. The fire chief, the city manager and hundreds of others pressed into service that night chose heroism over home.

LEARN MORE: HEROES OF ALL STRIPES ‘SEIZED THE MOMENT’ ON TRAGIC NIGHT

But owing to the thick smoke – and a combination of circumstances later judged to be preventable – Josephine Eager never left her building alive and Theresa Greer didn’t spend Christmas with her grandmother.

‘She would have had to walk six steps to get out the window, but she only made it about three.’

Theresa greer on her grandmother, fire victim juanita ward

LEARN MORE: REMEMBERING THE VICTIMS: DECADES HAVEN’T DIMMED MEMORIES OF THOSE LEFT BEHIND

In all, 16 people succumbed in the fire that originated in Apartment 102, feasted on dropped ceilings and other combustible material added during a ’70s-era renovation, and produced deadly smoke that raced up plumbing chases and other openings. Though the actual fire was confined to the 11-story building’s lower two floors, 14 of the dead were found on the fourth floor and higher.

The fire itself was under control shortly after arrival, but “smoke continued to fill the building, requiring ventilation and rescue operations to continue for at least another five hours.” (U.S. Fire Administration Report). All the victims died of smoke inhalation. Another 50 people, including 15 firefighters, were injured. The outside temperature steadily dropped from 17 degrees fahrenheit at the time of the alarm, hampering rescue and ventilation efforts.

Firefighters and public safety officers battle the John Sevier fire Dec. 24, 1989.

Precious minutes passed before an alarm sounded, because Apartment 102’s single smoke detector was separated from the fire by a closed bedroom door. The post-fire U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) report noted the “swirling smoke” trapped many upper floor residents “before any notification or alarm was heard by them.”

Another report, this one from the Tennessee Fire Marshal’s Office, concluded that “Rapid smoke movement and the fire’s ability to spread in a combustible concealed space were some of the major factors which contributed to the high loss of life and property.” State investigators determined that smoking materials were the likely cause of the fire. According to a Johnson City Press article, Tennessee’s assistant commissioner for fire prevention, Robert Frost, reported that Apartment 102’s tenant, Georgia Jones, was a chain smoker and that two previous fires had started in her apartment.

The tragedy prompted soul-searching as people around the city and beyond asked whether a different outcome might have been possible. State legislators launched a study committee that led to some building code and fire safety regulatory changes.

‘They created a fire trap with the changes.’

connie wallace, executive director of tennessee society of architects, in testimony to joint legislative committee studying the sevier fire

LEARN MORE: WHAT WENT WRONG — CHASING THE TRUTH

At Munsey, parishioners — many of whom had stayed around and provided aid during the fire — began to ask themselves whether they had been overlooking service and fellowship opportunities with 150 people living just across the street.

LEARN MORE: THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED A CHURCH

The John Sevier’s owners, U.G. and Grant Trivett, faced scrutiny and wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits, both personally and via the multiple partnerships they’d created when they converted the former hotel to low-income rental housing. The plaintiffs eventually received settlements for undisclosed sums.

LEARN MORE: BUILDING OWNERS FACED, SETTLED MULTIPLE LAWSUITS

‘I did try to convince the people I was talking to, you’re trying to put a value on a person’s life and this is not a typical 82-year-old lady.’

chuck gee, son of john sevier victim josephine eager

For nearly two months, a team from WJHL has gathered and studied archival information and interviewed more than a dozen people impacted by the fire. That work has resulted in the documentary above and written articles that provide even greater detail about the fire, its impacts and its aftermath.

WJHL’s staff is grateful to the many people who helped us in our attempt to honor the fire’s victims and provide insight into an event that has had a lasting impact on so many.

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