Fire in Downtown Fort Wayne

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Aubree Reichel | The Journal Gazette

Blaze engulfs buildings near downtown

Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette

At least six buildings in an aging industrial complex just east of downtown went up in flames Monday afternoon, filling the sky with a plume of dark smoke as the fire moved rapidly from one building to the next. Firefighters were forced to take a defensive stance as they battled the flames into the evening.

The blaze at the sprawling collection of buildings in the area of Cochrane, Coombs and Tecumseh streets, next to a set of beach volleyball courts, was first reported at 2:19 p.m. by a fire department battalion chief who was in the area and spotted heavy smoke. Fire trucks arrived at the scene two minutes later, and several crews entered one of the buildings, a large warehouse, attempting to stop the spread of the fire, which was already well established, Deputy Fire Chief Mark Nelson said.

"It just spread out of control very early on," he said.

Within about 15 minutes of entering the building, firefighters retreated. "When conditions worsened, you know, we pulled guys out, and the structure became unsafe," Nelson said. "It wasn't really worth taking any further risk with firefighter's lives."

At that point, firefighters began battling the flames with ladder trucks and hoses. Seeking out more water, crews stretched hoses across the Tecumseh Street Bridge and hundreds of feet down Edgewater Avenue to reach hydrants on the other side of the Maumee River.

"It took us a little while to establish adequate water supply because we had so many rigs here flowing water," Nelson said. "This is one of those exceptional fires that puts an extreme tax on our resources."

The warehouse building stored many items, including wooden pallets, that helped the blaze extend quickly to several other buildings, he said. The cause of the fire was still under investigation Monday evening. Nelson could not say when the buildings had been last inspected or if any violations had been found.

By checking records and consulting with owners, the fire department determined there were no hazardous materials in the complex.

"We monitored air quality multiple times," Nelson said. "We also had crews checking the water, the runoff into the river."

Nelson said none of the findings was a cause for concern. He said carbon monoxide levels in the air were slightly elevated, but not enough to require evacuations.

There were reports that three people lived at different points in the complex, but firefighters searched those areas and confirmed that no one was inside. A person who knows the three people told the fire officials they were all safe and accounted for, Nelson said. Fire department spokeswoman Stacey Fleming said the only injury reported was a minor one to a firefighter.

Shortly before 6 p.m., the warehouse that firefighters first entered collapsed inward. Bystander Albert Reese, 65, said he heard popping before the walls tumbled.

"The building was leaning towards the sidewalk, and all of a sudden, the back part collapsed," Reese said, adding that about five minutes later the other half of the structure came down.

The buildings in the complex have various owners. Suzanne Anglin, who owns part of the complex with her husband, David, said they rented space to two businesses. "I'm really worried about the cleanup – such a devastating loss," she said.

Another owner, Dyle Hughes, said his part of the complex was a warehouse that had sat mostly empty for about 15 years. Hughes said he once stored cars there for his repossession business.

"It's pretty much 75 percent empty, just oddball equipment we quit using," he said.

Telling from witness' accounts, the fire tore quickly through the complex. Jerry Philbee said he was loading a truck nearby about 2:30 p.m. and saw what appeared to be a small fire with some smoke. Within minutes, the building was engulfed, he said.

Phil Dibble, who owns a medical equipment salvage businesses in one of the buildings, said he spotted smoke and called 911, but within minutes some of the buildings became engulfed in flames.

Many homes in the neighborhood lost power when crews cut electricity for safety reasons. As of 9:30 p.m., more than 1,000 customers were without electricity, according to Indiana Michigan Power.

With the Tecumseh Street Bridge closed, school buses had to be rerouted, said Krista Stockman, a Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman. Train traffic on the Norfolk Southern line that runs along the southern edge of the complex was put on hold while the fire was brought under control, Nelson said.

More than 80 firefighters worked in shifts to battle the fire throughout the afternoon and eve