Fire crews to sift through Lyerly Funeral Home remains today

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 13, 2012

By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — A four-alarm fire destroyed Lyerly Funeral Home Friday afternoon.
No one was injured in the blaze that began about 12:15 p.m. But the flames apparently claimed the bodies of two sisters awaiting funerals scheduled for today.
Fire investigators had not yet been inside the building at 515 S. Main St. late Friday afternoon to determine what caused the fire.
Brent Lyerly, president of Lyerly Funeral Home, said the fire started shortly after he turned on the heating system inside the building.
“I had just left to go to lunch, and we cut the heat on because it was cold this morning,” Lyerly said.
Two staff members and a visitor were in the building when smoke started coming through the vents and a smoke alarm sounded. An employee then discovered flames on a lower level at the rear of the building.
“Something malfunctioned — I’m assuming in the furnace area — and we thought at first it was like lint,” Lyerly said. “I’m guessing it caught the duct work on fire.”
The furnace was housed in the original structure, Lyerly said, and the fire seemed to take off quickly, fueled by the building’s wood framing.
“It just mushroomed,” he said.
Employees at the funeral home’s crematorium — which sits next door and was not affected by the fire — began calling 911 when they saw smoke billowing out the front door.
“My daughter asked me what the smoke was about, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” said Donna Simpson, a staff member. “I just wasn’t sure what was going on.”
Salisbury firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes. Fire Chief Bob Parnell said the first units found smoke coming from two levels of the building.
Crews entered the business for 10 to 15 minutes before being forced to change their strategy.
“After 15 minutes of firefighting, and for the safety of the firefighters, we pulled them out to a defensive mode,” Parnell said. “You couldn’t see the building, and the guys in the inside couldn’t see where they were going.”
All the firefighters could do at that point was try to contain the blaze.
Main Street had been closed from Military Avenue to Monroe Street, and manpower and apparatus were assembled in the former Salvation Army parking lot across the street from the funeral home.
Firefighters fairly quickly called a second alarm — signaling the need for more personnel — and then a third alarm. About an hour into fighting the fire, a fourth alarm was called.
At one point, more than 50 firefighters were battling the blaze, with another 50 waiting in support. At least seven fire departments across the county provided personnel and equipment.
Fire crews at the back of the building used ladder trucks, multiple hoses and thermal imaging guns to fight the blaze. They also shot water down from a ladder truck parked near an apartment complex on Monroe Street.
Around 2 p.m. the roof began to buckle. Despite thousands of gallons of water being poured on it, the fire continuing to burn toward South Main Street on the roof.
Flames shot from the roof and thick columns of smoke billowed into the sky and filled the surrounding area. The smoke could be smelled throughout downtown Salisbury.
About 200 bystanders stood across the street watching the blaze.
Walter Adams, a Salisbury resident, said a friend called to warn him about the fire.
“I’m a good friend of Brent Lyerly’s, and it saddens me to see his business go up in flames,” he said. “It’s real tragedy for Salisbury.”
Even with all the trucks and hoses used, Parnell said water pressure was not a problem at the fire.
“Two of the first three arriving units established a water supply and had plenty of water and plenty of pressure for their operation,” Parnell said. “As the fire grew — the need for water grew — and we stay ahead of that. We did not experience a significant water problem.”
South Main Street remained closed in the 500 block Friday night and firefighters continued spraying water on the building from a ladder truck.
Parnell said crews will not be able to determine exactly where and how the fire began until investigators can safely enter the structure.
The bodies of two sisters who died Wednesday were in caskets inside the funeral home. Effie Leazer Stiller, 91, and Marie Elma Leazer, 84, were awaiting funerals today.
Lyerly said he hoped the bodies could be recovered.
Most of the funeral home’s vehicles were saved. Friday is a clean-up, detailing day for the vehicles, and most of them were parked outside and were easily moved away from the fire.
Lyerly said he may have lost an antique truck and one other vehicle, but he wasn’t sure. The things lost were only material things, Lyerly emphasized.
All four Salisbury stations, South Salisbury, Spencer, Rockwell, Faith, Granite Quarry and Cleveland fire departments responded to the call. Rowan Rescue, Rowan EMS and Salisbury Police also assisted.
Red Cross volunteers responded to the scene to support first emergency personnel.
Reporter Karissa Minn contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.