Editor's note: This is the Knoxville Journal's original report from the Oct. 26, 1966, downtown fire that claimed J.C. Penney and more. This story was first printed on Nov. 1, 1966.
Fire which smoldered, smoked and then raged for nearly 10 hours completely destroyed the J.C. Penney Store, The Elliott Studio, Record and Camera Shop and two apartments in the same building last Wednesday afternoon at the corner of Robinson and Second Street.
The apartments on the second floor were occupied by Mr. and Mrs. C.W. Murphy and Mr. and Mrs. Archie Mallory. The fire apparently started from electric wiring around partitions in the basement, near the east side of the building and about halfway back from the Robinson Street front, according to firemen who battled the blaze in its early stages.
It was first discovered by Paul Lange, Penney manager, who was in the mezzanine floor office at the front of the store and smelled something burning. While he was rushing to the main floor, sales personnel reported hearing a muffled explosion. Lange proceeded to the basement door on the east side of the store and when he opened it, was met with a thick cloud of dark brown smoke which, within a few minutes, completely filled the store. Penney's telephone lines were out of commission and a sales lady ran to Gable's Store next door to turn in the alarm, at 11:55 a.m.
Lange said that not more than five minutes before he opened the door, one of the sales ladies had been in the basement for a few minutes and had not reported any odor of smoke. At the rear of the building in the basement, Mrs. Margaret Slocum was at work alone in the processing room of Elliott Studio. She said that at first she had not noticed any smoke because an exhaust fan was on. She came to the front of the shop, found it practically filled with smoke and gasped out a telephone call to the fire department. She got out safely.
Occupants of the front apartment on the second floor, the Murphys, were out of the city when the fire started. Mrs. Murphy was with her aunt, Mrs. Gertrude Trimmer, in Des Moines and Mr. Murphy was with the Army Corps of Engineers' survey crew, with which he works, out in the field.
Occupants of the other apartment, the Mallorys, were in Knoxville. Mr. Mallory was on the sidewalk at the entrance to the upper stairway on Robinson Street. He started up as the fire siren blew and met Mrs. Mallory, who had been preparing the noon meal, as she started down the stairs. Like the Murphys, they saved none of their possessions.
When firemen arrived, they were met with dense brown smoke issuing from around the main door of Penney's on Robinson Street and more issuing from the store's side door and from two basement openings.
Their chief problem, until the west wall back to the end of the street of the two-story section collapsed at 4:30 p.m., was to locate the main fire or fires. The smoke was so dense that the firemen could not remain in the smoke – even with masks – long enough at one time to find the fire.
For the first three to four hours, it was mostly a matter of directing streams of water into the few available openings in the hope that they would reach fire. Half an hour before the west wall collapsed, firemen had made progress in locating the main blaze and some were inside the building. They were able to scramble to safety, just before the collapse.
The second story of the front wall came down about 4:45 p.m. and later the first story was knocked down. Once the walls collapsed and the two floors and roof fell in, the fire raged and belched smoke over the whole courthouse area and buildings on the north side of the square. The battle to confine the flames and, particularly, to keep them away from the adjoining wall of the Gamble Store occupied all the available firemen and some 15 lines of hose. By about 6 p.m. the fire, while not out, was enough under control that it was no longer a serious threat to Gamble's.
After that, until nearly 11 p.m., firemen sprayed water on the ruins as flames alternately died down and flared up. One or two hose lines sprayed water on the debris throughout Wednesday night one line was kept ready and frequently used until the middle of Thursday afternoon.
In less than half an hour after the fire was first reported, it became apparent that it was more than a minor blaze and Knoxville City firemen would need help to keep it from spreading. The Knoxville Veterans Hospital Fire Department was called about 12:25 p.m.
In short order after that as they were either called or volunteered, firemen and equipment arrived from the Knoxville Township Department, from the Oskaloosa Department and the Albia Volunteer Fire Department.
In the middle of the afternoon, the City of Pella sent its truck, equipped with a snorkel (or high lift bucket) and a Knoxville fireman used it to spray water on the back part of the building in the vicinity of Elliott Studio, which suffered little fire damage.
Later, rescue trucks and squads arrived from Russell and Chariton and throughout the late afternoon and early evening, groups of firemen without trucks came and assisted from fire departments at Chariton, Melcher, Lovilia, Monroe, Williamson and Pleasantville. Indianola and Columbia Departments volunteered to come if needed.
Rescusitator equipment, because of the dense smoke, was in use constantly until late afternoon and dozens of firemen took whiffs of oxygen. Bob Edwards, Don Saylor, Gary Stevenson, Ken Thrailkill and Jim Speed were taken to Collins Memorial Hospital for rest. Speed was kept overnight while the others remained a couple of hours. Available ambulances stood by throughout the afternoon.
Late in the afternoon, a Marion County dragline was called in to employ a pile driver weight to break through the debris in several places to provide openings for hose lines. Later, the dragline bucket was used to pull down walls that were threatening to fall.
Members of the Knoxville Volunteer Department Ladies Auxiliary worked constantly throughout the afternoon and evening, alongside the fire to provide firemen and other workers with coffee, doughnuts and rolls. Coffee was made not only in the maker of the Auxiliary, but also in several others in nearby stores.
Food stores, bakeries and individuals kept the Auxiliary supplied with edibles while drug and variety stores made first aid supplies available. At supper time, stretching into the evening, Maple Buffet served 101 free meals to as many firemen and workers, including peace officers who assisted.
Estimate of losses of merchandise by Penney's and Gamble's (which suffered smoke damage throughout and water damage in the basement) were unavailable. Bob Elliott estimated his loss in stock and equipment at between $25,000 and $30,000. An unofficial estimate of the value of the Penney's building, which is owned by Joe M. Johnston, is $100,000.
City street workers spent all day Thursday and Friday morning clearing away debris back to the property line of the building and hauling it to the old city dump near the sewage disposal plant. The Gamble's building is owned by the Vanderwilt Trust.
No announcement has been made by Penney's as to future plans for the store, nor has Gamble's announced when it will reopen for business. Elliott Studio was still in the process of finding a new location. Johnston has not yet announced plans for rebuilding.
The Marion County Peace Officers Association meeting, which was scheduled for Wednesday evening in Knoxville, as canceled, as was the Knoxville Firemen potluck supper at the city hall on last Thursday evening.