Heroic: Firefighters battle back Sunday inferno

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, June 13, 2023

SALISBURY — A three-alarm blaze, ignited by a lightning bolt, destroyed a historic building in downtown Salisbury over the weekend and imperiled the lives of several firefighters who answered the call.

According to Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell, there were multiple heroic moments which played out Sunday afternoon at the fire in the 200 block of North Ellis Street. 

The fire began in the attic. When crews arrived, they attempted to combat the blaze from the top and bottom. Six firefighters entered through the front door. 

“There were no smoke or fire conditions on the first floor,” Parnell said. “The fire was above them in the attic space or between what we think was two roofs … They couldn’t get to it from underneath.”

As the fire engulfed the building, conditions inside changed almost instantaneously.

“It became very hot and very smoky,” Parnell said. “They had to don their masks and bail out that window because they didn’t have time to get back to the front door. Six firefighters bailed out the window in such a very close call, it was a very heroic time to have to jump out of a window, but that is what they had to do in this case.”

It was not the only close call that the firefighters combatting the blaze encountered. 

“One of our ladder trucks on the B-side of the building was flowing over the roof to get to the other side of the buildings and the roof opened up and impinged on the platform that they were in,” Parnell said. “It damaged the bucket but fortunately, no firefighters were hurt. They got very hot but it goes with their protective gear. Another close call that the firefighters had to endure.”

Parnell explained that mutual aid procedures were activated immediately. 

“We called a second alarm before we even arrived on scene,” Parnell said. “We had a complement of about eight engines, three ladder trucks, a couple rescue trucks and several chief officers arrived at the second alarm.”

Ten minutes later, the third alarm was activated. Parnell estimated that more than 60 firefighters responded either to the fire, or to assist with other calls that occurred while Salisbury crews were at the scene. 

“We applied about a half million gallons of water over the course of about two and a half hours,” Parnell said. “The height of the flow was about 5,000 gallons per minute.”

Up against one of Mother Nature’s deadliest weapons, Parnell said it was all they could do to keep the fire from spreading to other homes in the area. 

“When lighting strikes it is a 500,000-degree instantaneous ignition,” Parnells said. “It is hotter than the surface of the sun.”

As the building that used to be a Rowan-Salisbury Schools central office went up in smoke, all nearby onlookers could do was watch. 

Salisbury City Attorney Graham Corriher lives across the street and was on his front porch when the lightning struck.

“We were sitting on the porch, my wife, Danielle, and I, looking down and reading, and it just hit,” Corriher said. “There was no question about what it was. There was sort of an explosion and then sparks shot out of the building, and immediately it started smoldering.”

Corriher immediately called 911.

“The fire department was here in less than a minute and a half,” Corriher said. “I was still on the phone with 911 when the first engine pulled up. They had water on it within minutes.”

Another nearby neighbor, Tripp Clement, heard the excitement and came to check out the commotion.

“I thought maybe it was a tree at first,” Clement said. “Then, somebody said something about how they thought a house was on fire. That is when I saw the smoke and came over here, but I never expected the whole (building) to go up in flames like this.”

The building currently serves Power Cross, whose director of operations, Corey Knight, was on the scene.

“We got a call from the fire department and rushed over here,” Knight said.

Power Cross is a youth sports ministry for young boys.

“We do youth athletics as a way to draw the boys in,” Knight said. “We do football, basketball, baseball and wrestling. We also do Bible study, feed them meals and help them with homework. We try to do the whole gamut, to develop the whole young man.”

Knight expressed gratitude that no one was inside at the time, but it still made the sight difficult.

“Initial reaction, it was hard to see,” Knight said. “That was our admin building. It’s not going to stop us from serving the kids we need to serve. We are going to get right back at it and keep doing what we need to do for the young men of this community.”

Knight was optimistic that the service his organization provides would not be disrupted.

“Next steps, we have to talk with the fire department about getting back on site,” Knight said. “Our kids need to be on standby, and if we can get out here and practice this week, we will get out here and practice this week.”

The building previously served as an elementary school before becoming a central office. Its presence lent the neighborhood its name as the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District. It was once an elementary school called Frank B. John Elementary.