What went wrong — Chasing the truth

John Sevier Fire

A Dec. 26 front page Johnson City Press article shows that leaders quickly began digging for answers about the fatal fire. (Courtesy Johnson City Press)

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.)

“As with any disaster such as this, the finger pointing began before the last embers had cooled.”

Tennessee state fire marshal’s report, september 1990

“I think the John Sevier experience is one of the best examples we can offer anywhere right now as a breakdown in the system. We had a bad structure. We didn’t have adequate inspection. Obviously what codes are on the books were not being adequately enforced.”

state rep. bob good (johnson city), chairman, 1990 joint legislative committee
A section of one of numerous wrongful death lawsuits filed by families of victims. The suits eventually were settled out of court.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- The questions began almost immediately: Why did the John Sevier fire kill so many people? Had building or fire officials overlooked something?

In time, many of those questions were answered, either fully or in part. So was another – will anything be done to prevent a repeat?

In November 1990 Connie Wallace, then the executive director of the Tennessee Society of Architects, aided a joint legislative study committee related to the fire. In the committee’s final meeting on Nov. 2, 1990, she offered this summation: “I think truly there’s enough shared responsibility to go around, and I see it being among the architect, the engineer, the contractor and the building officials, the inspectors. And the owner.”

Why so many deaths? Chasing the truth

The once-grand John Sevier Hotel underwent at least two renovations, one in the ‘50s and one in 1977. Both included installation of combustible ceiling tiles, and the second, in 1977, left the first floor with three ceilings and “a large, undivided combustible concealed space.” (Tennessee Fire Marshal’s report). Because smoke from the fire reached that combustible space before triggering an alarm, 11 minutes passed from combustion to the 5:11 p.m. notification of the fire department. Sprinklers weren’t required at the time of the 1977 renovation, but each apartment and the corridors had smoke alarms.

A Johnson City Press article revealing the John Sevier hadn’t been fully inspected prior to the December fire, despite city commission directives and an October blaze that killed one.

A Johnson City Press report from Dec. 27, 1989, cited the city’s chief building official, Joe Cannon, as saying officials inspected the center several times during the 1980s, “when center management sought building permits for some changes.” Those changes fell short of being deemed renovations, but they may have contributed to the tragedy’s magnitude, according to the state fire marshal’s report.

That report noted points throughout the building’s corridor system where walls had been opened then patched with a layer of drywall. “Behind these patches were plumbing chases that appeared to extend the entire vertical distance of the building.” The report said in some cases, those chases opened into adjacent apartments via closets, and that several such closets had heavy smoke stains on the floor in front of the door, “indicating an avenue of smoke travel during the fire.”

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.

A U.S. Fire Administration report on the fire noted that following the single-fatality October 1989 fire, an inspection showing the plumbing chase problem caught the attention of at least some officials.

A utility pipe inside the John Sevier Center today, extending into the ceiling.

“Fire officials had attempted to correct the situation by working with building officials and engineers to convince the owner of the seriousness of this situation and bring the building into compliance,” the USFA report said.

Now retired, Connie Wallace said she remembers well her work aiding the joint legislative committee. A Kingsport architect, Allen Dryden, contacted her. In a Dec. 12, 2019 interview, Wallace said architects and others concerned about life safety issues “had a very difficult time back in those days in getting appropriate building codes adopted. This fire really was the impetus for moving that forward.”

Serious to whom?

The Dec. 27 Press report noted that despite a March 1989 City Commission directive to inspect all downtown buildings, the center received only a cursory inspection after the October fire – one limited to a check of the repairs from the fire damage. While that would have been a good time for a more thorough inspection, Cannon told the Press, “timewise it wasn’t good. We would have gotten to this eventually. It (the first fire) wasn’t real major, although you lost a life. We had no reason to think it was that serious.”

Cannon’s decision wasn’t subject to review outside his own local supervisors. Like many Tennessee cities at the time, Johnson City handled its own building inspections and was exempt from scrutiny by the state fire marshal’s office, which Wallace said “was not that powerful that many years ago.”

They created a fire trap with the changes.

Connie wallace, legislative study committee testimony, 1990

Wallace also told WJHL local governments often lacked sufficient resources to hire enough inspectors, and that inspectors weren’t always well-trained. Then there were the renovations.

“Probably – and again this is just conjecture on my part – I think when the building was constructed it was certainly constructed according to the codes of that day. But my hunch is that when the renovations were undertaken they didn’t do appropriate meeting of new standards.”

A finding from the US Fire Administration report.

With no action taken, the avenues the deadly smoke traveled remained hidden behind simple sheets of drywall. One legislative committee member, Rep. Frank Niceley (Strawberry Plains), seemed ready to lay significant blame on Johnson City staff after reading the fire marshal’s account of the hidden plumbing chases. Nor was Wallace pulling any punches at the time.

“I read some of the report last night that the fire marshal’s office had done,” Niceley said at the Nov. 2, 1990 committee meeting. “These plumbing holes they talked went like the entire height of the building. Maybe 10 floors.”

Wallace interjected: “They created a fire trap with the changes.”

Connie Wallace

“Well, shouldn’t the inspector have seen that and done something about it? It looks to me like the inspectors in this case, in this particular case, were just looking the other way.”

Among his final comments that day, Good also pointed to inspection issues.

“It later has been admitted to that (the building) was way overdue for an inspection. The building inspector did not answer – or the answers that he gave this committee in Johnson City I think probably left some of us with some anxiousness.”

The state report’s list of code deficiencies – based on codes in effect during the 1977 major renovation – runs to nearly three full pages. Its “lessons learned” include a statement that “renovations should be designed to enhance the life safety of a building not decrease it. Owners and designers must recognize their responsibility in this area and act accordingly.”

Never again?

In the fire’s immediate aftermath, Don Arnold said, “I had people come up to me and say, ‘well, what are we gonna do about this, what can we do about it?’”

A Dec. 30, 1989 Johnson City Press headline references plans for a legislative study committee whose remit would extend beyond just the issue of sprinklers in buildings. (Courtesy Johnson City Press)

He got together with Good, who died in 2004, and they drew up a resolution to establish the committee hoping it could prompt well-researched legislation aimed at preventing a recurrence. That resolution referenced the legislature’s wish “to investigate the state codes governing multi-unit housing for the elderly in order to ascertain whether such codes are adequately stringent.”

Good’s final committee remarks suggest he didn’t find those codes adequate. “If we could console ourselves right now by thinking that was the only such situation that exists in the state,” Good said, “we could probably relieve ourselves of some of the pressure and the concern that this committee is experiencing right now. 

Don Arnold during his 1987-1991 Senate term.

“But that is not the case I’m afraid. I think probably there is such a facility to some degree and size of the John Sevier that exists in every community across this state, and if the lack of a system working properly is true in those communities, I think at any point in time we can pick up the paper or turn on the TV and see where another unbelievable tragedy has occurred in some community across this state.”

Arnold didn’t run for re-election in 1990, but Rusty Crowe, his successor in the senate, helped author two legislative changes growing out of the study.

One required the state fire marshal to audit, every three years, each local government that chooses to enforce its own code, “to insure that the local government is adequately performing its enforcement functions.” A second mandates that fire prevention and building officials must receive certification from the state fire marshal before enforcing applicable building and fire codes.

Don Arnold

Thirty years on, then-Johnson City Manager John Campbell and Arnold, who served on the legislative study committee, shied away from condemning anyone.

“Quite frankly, at the time I don’t think a city like ours had a lot of experience,” Campbell said. “Of course this was an unusual building compared to most of what’s in the city, but just making sure you have the right amount of codes enforcers, and they’re doing their job – and that’s not to say they weren’t at that time, I mean, looked like they had mostly, but to some extent you’re going to have some of that that’s not quite sealed off the way you should seal it off.”

Arnold said he never believed Johnson City had dropped the ball at some point.

“A lot of things could have been done differently but Johnson City was no different than anybody else,” Arnold said. “Every city was the same way then, they had their own inspectors, the state didn’t do it, they did it themselves.

“They just didn’t do as good a job as possibly they should have, but I think circumstances are such that the timing and everything, I don’t know that you can put a lot of blame on Johnson City for this. That’s my personal opinion.”

Even Wallace, the architect, acknowledged the challenges faced by small communities in her 1990 testimony. “I think you have a very dedicated lot of inspectors across the state but I think they’re hamstrung by insufficient numbers and insufficient training to do the jobs that they are called on to do.”

Thirty years on, though, Wallace said she concluded in 1990 that Johnson City probably did drop the ball. “The October fire was … maybe the biggest issue,” Wallace said. “The fact that they didn’t take action then. And the idea that there were no fire stops in the ceiling areas, between the floors, was just crazy and certainly allowed the fire to spread.”

A finding from the U.S. Fire Administration report on the fire.

Still, Arnold said he hopes the post-fire process accomplished something. “We’ll never know the truth but I can’t help but think maybe it saved some lives. Things like this (potentially deadly fires) occur every day.”

Wallace agrees. She said she ranks her work on the committee and the resulting legislation creating stricter code enforcement among the top three accomplishments during her time representing architects’ interests in Nashville.

Asked if she believes the changes were a positive step for building safety in Tennessee, she said this: “You certainly didn’t want anybody to die for that to happen, but yes, I do.”

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