Sears Fire In 1951 Was One Of The Most Memorable Of Downtown Blazes

  • Tuesday, June 18, 2024
  • Earl Freudenberg
Sears fire June 24, 1951
Sears fire June 24, 1951

It was described as one of the most stubborn ever fires in Chattanooga. June 24 marks the 73rd anniversary of a basement fire at the Sears, Roebuck and Company, sixth and Market Streets.

Fire Department documents say a faulty air conditioner may have caused the blaze in the basement’s plumbing department where there was a large amount of paint, roofing, turpentine and other building supplies.

Those documents say the first alarm was about 6:45 and only a few employees were in the building.

It took nearly four hours to bring the fire under control in the downtown department store that opened around 1930. Thick smoke quickly spread up the four-story building's staircase. Over one third of the department’s 175 firefighters remained on the scene for more than 24 hours.

Officials said lack of ventilation hampered firefighters in their efforts to get to the fire’s core. Chief R.R. Gouldy directed firefighting and ordered holes be chopped through the ground floor to get hoses to the fire’s source.

Over a dozen firefighters were overcome by smoke and taken to the hospital for treatment. No one died as a result of the fire.

Luke Wilson with WDXB Radio, whose studios were in the Dome Building, said the station almost had live reports from the scene.

He said the station's engineer took a large tape recorder and set up in front of the Electric Power Board Building across from the fire.

Wilson said they used a long 150-foot mic cable and did interviews that were taped; a co-worker would take the tapes back to the studio several blocks away and play them on the air immediately.

Luke Wilson said, “The reports were only a few minutes old; they sounded live but were recorded.”

Wilson interviewed Davis England one of the first firefighters to arrive on the scene. England said, “Firemen drilled holes in the first floor and used large fans to draw the thick black smoke out of the basement.”

Wilson gave this writer a copy of the original broadcasts which also featured veteran broadcasters Red Brown and Tom Nobles. Click here to listen.

Retired Chattanooga Fire Chief Joe Knowles had just started with the department. He said he reported for work the next morning at 7:00 and was immediately sent to the scene. Knowles said, although the fire had been brought under control, the relief shift still had a lot of work to do.

Wilson said police provided crowd control as several thousand lined the 600 block of Market and Broad Streets to view the historical fire.

The Sears store was closed for over six months while repairs were made to the downtown structure.

Sears permanently closed in downtown Chattanooga in 1988. Former Chattanooga Mayor and U.S. Senator Bob Corker was one of several who had the vision to save the structure and convert it into offices that include the Raymond James investment and retirement company.

As youngsters we will never forget going to Sears to see Santa Claus whose workshop with hundreds of toys was located downstairs near where that big fire was reported to have started.

Sears when it was downtown at Sixth and Market
Sears when it was downtown at Sixth and Market
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