by Rex Eaton
Second fire in two weeks ravages historic Indiana downtown:
In the pre-dawn hours of November 21st, a call came in to the Jennings County 9-1-1 dispatch center reporting a fire at the Hatton’s Carpet building in downtown North Vernon, Indiana, for the second time in as many weeks. When North Vernon Fire Chief Rick McGill arrived on the scene shortly after 5 a.m. with other local firefighters, they assessed the scene and were able to contain and quickly extinguish what was initially believed to be the bulk of the flames. As they continued to survey the scene, they found three large breaches above the ceiling of the basement apartment where the fire started with active flames in between two levels of the building. The flames were hot enough to force the firefighters to exit the building and call for assistance. The fire quickly began to spread and by 6:30 a.m. had engulfed the entire building and spread to the adjacent Iron Clad building. Both buildings had been empty since a fire the previous week that had displaced at least 12 individuals from the apartments above and below Hatton’s Carpet. Chief McGill told the local paper, The North Vernon Plain Dealer and Sun, “When we elevated to look into one of the breaches, we could see fire. Flames were just rolling in that space between the top of the cubicles and the bottom of the floor above.” As firefighters arrived from at least five neighboring towns to battle the blaze, roads were closed around town and a plume of smoke could be seen as far away as Seymour, Indiana, 15 miles to the west. At 6:45 a.m. the front brick wall of the Iron Clad building collapsed, scattering rubble into the street and injuring two firefighters. At 7:30 the back wall went down, leaving an aching hole in the historic downtown area street front dating back to the late 1800’s.
The fire continued throughout the morning with aerial ladders aiding the fight and heavy equipment brought in to displace rubble that hindered the firefighter’s efforts. Finally, by around 11:30 a.m. the fire was under control but not before the sleepy town of North Vernon lost three historic buildings to the blaze that has since been determined to have been intentionally set. Five firefighters were taken to local hospitals for minor injuries related to the buildings’ collapse or smoke inhalation and all were treated and released. While the cause of the blaze has been determined to be arson, currently no one has been named as a suspect. Thankfully, because the buildings were vacant after the previous fire a week earlier, no one else was injured in the blaze.
The same cannot be same for the town. This historic block of North Vernon was part of a government-aided restoration effort called “Stellar Community.” The buildings damaged by the fire were next in line for a facade restoration effort to boost the downtown’s image and attract local businesses. Mayor Harold “Soup” Campbell stated, “All that invested money is now up in smoke. These are historic structures and it makes the heart heavy to see them destroyed.”
A community bands together:
North Vernon, Indiana, is a small, rural town located an hour’s drive from Indianapolis, Louisville, KY and Cincinnati, OH. The local labor force is concentrated on farms and in factories and one high school serves the county of just over 20,000 people. Since the first fire the displaced several families from the downtown apartments, the small community has come together to provide food, shelter and holiday gifts to those affected by the blaze. Now with the entire block damaged from the fire and resultant firefight, the people of North Vernon have their work cut out for them. The town is a lot like many small towns throughout the midwest. The local economy has typically struggled to keep up with larger towns’ economic growth and it struggles with many of the issues facing rural communities. Drug problems and a recent string of violence has led local civic leaders to plead for change and a call for public support to help clean up the town. It is a town where people frequently grow up and keep their roots planted firmly within the community as they raise their families. Those that grew up in the town know everyone else that is from there and the town watches out for one another in good times and in bad.
The fire follows as a one-two punch behind another tragedy that has left the town of just over 6,000 people reeling.. Earlier in the month, a local middle school football player, Calvin Clark, suffered a traumatic brain injury during a travel football game. He remains in an Indianapolis hospital after surgeries to repair a ruptured blood vessel in his brain, and the community has banded together for bake sales, silent auctions and #CalvinStrong bracelets to lend support for the family’s medical bills.
On the brisk Friday morning of November 28th, two women that work for the local paper, Briana Barger and Jill McIntosh, were spotted painting a Christmas scene resembling “Who-ville,” from the Dr. Seuss Christmas book “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” on the plywood barricade surrounding the burned-out buildings. Under bright blue skies with a paint brush in hand, McIntosh commented that the mayor’s wife requested the scene be painted in an effort to “brighten up” the dismal scene at the center of town. The juxtaposition of the brightly painted Christmas scene against the backdrop of charred buildings is a stark reminder of North Vernon’s battle against a Grinch of their own this Christmas. “People around here are tough, they have to be,” stated a man walking near the scene of the fire. The community of North Vernon has a deep wound in its heart, but the resilience and determination of a community sticking together in the hardest of times ensures that they will eventually recover.