Blazing into Galesburg history, again


by Mike Kroll


Technically it was early Monday morning when the fire at the former O.T. Johnson's store was reported to 911 operators but for most of us it occurred in the middle of Sunday night. Like the residents of the apartments in the McCrery Law building or above It's Scrap'n Time or even on the south side of Main Street most Galesburger's were sound asleep at 1:35am when the Galesburg Fire Department arrived to investigate a reported fire that will be remembered as yet another among a list historic Galesburg fires.

Within minutes it was clear to firefighters that this was a big blaze. The standard Galesburg fire response to a structure fire is to send equipment from all three stations but already by 1:40am officials were calling back firefighters from the previous shift to help fight what was already promising to be a major battle. At this point there was still hope of aggressively fighting the fire and minimizing damage to the building of origin but that hope was quickly deemed unrealistic. Many of the nearby residents were rudely awakened by the sounds of sirens or the good sense of their neighbors who helped clear the adjacent buildings. Police and firefighters followed up to make sure that everyone got clear as the flames rapidly built up along Main Street and threatened to spread to nearby structures like the Red Cross or First Bank buildings or the five story warehouse to the north.

By 2am East Main Antiques was fully engulfed and firefighters changed their focus toward containing the inferno. Fifteen minutes later the front windows blew out showing Main Street and firefighters with shattered glass and debris, as the building flames licked the sky they also began spitting smoke and hot embers into the southeasterly winds. Business owners, called by officials began arriving and worked quickly to begin moving their most highly prized possessions out of threatened adjacent structures. At the Red Cross building workers divided their time between removing key items, spreading tarps over valuable records and equipment and commencing their official mission of providing aid and comfort to firefighters, police and displaced residents. By the time the Main Street facade collapsed into the street the fire had spread to the warehouse but, amazingly, nowhere else.

Galesburg officials recognizing the seriousness of this fire and the very real threat it posed put out a mutual aid request to Knoxville, Abingdon and Monmouth and all three neighbors responded. Most of the GFD effort had originally focused on the Main Street fire and as firefighters and equipment from Knoxville and Abingdon arrived it was positioned on Ferris street with the mission of containing the growing warehouse blaze. Additionally multiple units of the Galesburg Hospitals Ambulance Service stood by to administer aid to the injured but spent most of their time watching firefighters battle the blaze. No civilian injuries were reported and only two Galesburg firefighters suffered minor injuries, a twisted knee from walking among the debris and a foot injury from falling debris.

The orange flames lit up downtown Galesburg and could be seen all over town. Word of the huge fire spread and despite the late hour and cold temperature many came to watch the spectacle, as is Galesburg fire tradition. The police established a perimeter and worked energetically to keep gawkers back a safe distance. People gathered along Cherry Street, across Ferris Street in the field best known for hosting the Railroad Days beer tent, in parking lot A across Prairie Street and even along Simmons (people were pushed back from Park Plaza). Despite the weather the heat of the fire was quite noticeable and the temperature displayed on the bank sign was in the high 50s.

While not many had gathered before the front facade collapsed onto Main Street there was quite a large crowd watching the warehouse that had formerly been Gross Galesburg grow into a tremendous inferno. Despite its solid construction the heat of the fire was too much for the structure of the warehouse building and it began to fail. First the roof collapsed and then portions of the front and west walls fell outward and the interior floors began to pancake. The worse news came as the east wall began to buckle and fall-- onto adjacent structures firefighters had worked so hard to save. All the water that had been sprayed to prevent the fire from spreading had worked well. Excepting fire on the roof of the former Elks building and an ignited gas leak at the rear of that same building none of the buildings on Prairie Street appeared to catch fire despite their proximity and but a narrow alley separating the structures.

But there was nothing firefighters could do to mitigate against the collapse of that east wall. Parts of it fell directly upon the rear of the buildings housing the Frameworks and It's Scrap'n Time. The second-floor apartments at the building's rear were smashed by hot bricks and collapsed upon the rear of the stores beneath. As dramatic as the collapse of these walls was the smoke and steam hid much of this damage from view but it didn't take much imagination to guess at the consequences. Those consequences were all too evident later Monday morning when we saw how the rear of these building's simply ceased to exist.

The spectacle was nearly over before daylight but not the work of firefighters who remained all day and night Monday and through most of Tuesday. As morning dawned Monday the ruble was still burning and the damage to the Red Cross and First Bank building became more evident, yet most of us who watched the blaze at its height would never have expected either neighboring building to have survived at all. It was a testament to the skill and hard work of all the firefighters involved that the entire city block wasn't claimed by the fire. By noon Monday a new fire was discovered in the roof of Billiards on Main. Apparently embers from the fire caused this small blaze unnoticed until firefighters couldn't clear the accumulated smoke from within the sports bar.

Yes, fire has claimed yet another Galesburg landmark and forever altered what passes for a local skyline but we must consider ourselves lucky. It may be some time before we get any hard information on what exactly started the fire or can determine the future for the other damaged buildings.