Stop the Presses

Lessons from the O.T. Johnson fire


by Mike Kroll


The tragic O.T. Johnson's fire “celebrated” its one-year anniversary on Tuesday. While the smoke and smell have cleared there remains ample evidence of just how serious a fire it was. Not only is there now a hole along Main Street where once a proud commercial building stood, but that hole remains filled with the buildings' rubble as an ugly unhealed scar on the facade of downtown Galesburg. A young man lost his life in this fire but the fire investigation has never yielded any useful results and likely never will. We still don't know how the fire started, why Michael Olson was in the building that night or how the fire grew into such an inferno so quickly that it was it was damn lucky the remainder of that city block was mostly spared that night as well!

Of the adjacent buildings that suffered non-fatal fire damage only one has completed repairs (McCrery Law Building) and no longer evidences its wounds. The Red Cross and First Bank buildings have each been cleaned and repaired and returned to their customary use for months but much work remains to be done on both. The three buildings along North Prairie Street still sit vacant and forlorn with boarded-up windows and their back sides covered in tarps, unused and final repair or reuse remain uncertain.

This is an event that triggers many necessary but tough questions.

The Galesburg Fire Department labored hard to keep the blaze under control but their efforts would have been in vain were it not for relatively calm winds that night and the welcome help of neighboring fire departments from Abingdon, Knoxville and Monmouth. While the buildings involved in the fire had masonry exteriors they were heavy wood timber buildings at heart and contained large amounts of combustible materials. A virtual tinderbox but one with a sprinkler system installed that may well have slowed or extinguished the fire in its early stages, but the sprinkler system was not hooked up! Why was the building owner permitted to disengage this sprinkler system? What is the history of buildings' fire inspection results.

Dr. Richard Nelson of Clinton, Iowa and his wife had been operating an antique store in the buildings although the store had very irregular hours and was closed far more than open. Nelson claimed an inventory worth hundreds of thousands yet had no insurance on either the building or its contents. With no insurance to cover his loss or his liability for the damage inflicted by the fire Nelson was far from cooperative in the days and weeks  immediately following the fire. As a physician it might be assumed that Nelson had other personal assets worth pursuing in civil action by the city, however the decision was made early on to accept ownership of the property in exchange for an agreement by the city not to hold Nelson personally liable for the results of the fire. This choice was supposedly made to speed up the cleanup of the property but that was hardly the end result.

Now, after a prolonged process, the Galesburg city council finally has ownership of the property but must pay all of the cleanup costs out of city funds. Today's estimated cleanup costs exceed the original estimate of about a half million dollars but exact figures remain unknown. Part of the reason for this ambiguity and potentially increased costs is due to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency concerns of asbestos contamination of the rubble coupled with fear that the foundation of the adjoining First Bank building could be damaged by subsidence in the process of ruble removal. These complications, especially including the escalated clean-up costs, has led some Galesburg city council members to actually suggest that the cleanup be delayed further as a cost cutting move in a tight budget year. Some aldermen have even suggested that a business might accept ownership of the property for a small token sum conditional to an agreement to promptly clean it up and reconstruct an appropriate commercial structure!

Just what are they thinking? Do they actually believe that an unsafe and decidedly unsightly pile of rubble won't be a hindrance to faster economic recovery of the city? Do they really think any legitimate business person would actually agree to this ludicrous proposition? Are they clueless to the current market value of real estate in downtown Galesburg? Given the economic realities of downtown Galesburg such a move by a private business would be financially stupid-- unless they were obtaining substantial financial assistance from somewhere to mitigate the risk. Perhaps the city council would want to extend an attractive no- or low-interest loan to some business person to sweeten the deal. That way the citizens of Galesburg will get  to shell out the big bucks for the cleanup right away with the false promise of eventual repayment. What a wonderful economic development story that would be!

Circumstances do not permit the city council to stumble around mishandling this mess any longer. The city needs to commit itself to cleaning up the debris and filling in the hole as soon as possible and hope that some kind of realistic redevelopment of the cleaned-up property subsequently reveals itself. One thing the city council definitely should not do is leap on the first slick, well-spoken opportunist from out-of-town who shows up in an expensive shiny suit with fancy plans to work wonders with the property if only the city can assist in financing the project. Been there, done that with disastrous results-- no need to repeat.

Galesburg Mayor Gary Smith should immediately schedule a meeting with State Representative Don Moffitt and State Senator Dale Risinger to ask for help getting out from under the ridiculous IEPA asbestos problem. There seems little disputing that the old buildings contained asbestos materials but most of that was probably destroyed in either the fire itself or the demolition already undertaken. Whatever exposure the citizens of Galesburg might have suffered from this asbestos was most probably from the smoke and soot generated by the fire a year ago that hung in the downtown Galesburg air for weeks following the fire. It is very doubtful that anyone will be inhaling any of the bricks or steel that remain on-site and couldn't most of the dust stirred up by the cleanup be minimized by keeping the material wet during the process? The cost-benefit analysis of IEPA paranoia regarding potential asbestos risks seems weak indeed. This would be an excellent opportunity for Illinois lawmakers to assist Galesburg at no financial cost to the taxpayer by simply asking the IEPA to focus their attention elsewhere.

Next, Galesburg city staff should prepare a careful review of Galesburg's existing building and fire codes as pertains to sprinkler systems for presentation to the city council. Fire Chief John Cratty can explain the ample evidence that sprinkler systems are the most effective means of fire control in structures, modern or otherwise, and what the likely effect would have been in the case of the O.T. Johnson fire had the sprinkler system been functional and hooked to a fire alarm system. While Galesburg's codes include requirements for sprinkler systems there have been numerous examples of businesses either remodeling or doing new construction where they successfully argued for exemption from the sprinkler requirements. This practice must cease immediately and the sprinkler and fire alarm requirements in Galesburg's codes strengthened and expanded. The extra building costs are comparatively minor by comparison to the potential costs of a fire burning out of control where sprinklers and/or alarms are not present.

And finally, the city staff should prepare material to support passage of a new ordinance creating a commercial business license for all Galesburg businesses. The purpose of this license will be to clearly identify the person or persons responsible for all commercial buildings and/or operations withing the city limits. The license process should include a modest fee to cover costs of administering the program and require annual renewal. As part of the license process each business would need to provide proof of all relevant insurance (property, liability, vehicle, etc.) and evidence that the operation of the business would be within conformance to all applicable city and state laws including collection of sales taxes, non-discrimination laws, etc. For the purpose of this ordinance a business should include all the obvious commercial and industrial operations but also any landlords who profit from the rental or leasing of space for any purpose. The use of ill-suited or unsafe buildings for commercial purposes, including residential rentals, should be prohibited.

I know that there will be an immediate and loud protest over both of these moves but had such ordinances been in place before the O.T. Johnson fire the results would almost assuredly been far different. Operating sprinklers would have probably kept the fire controlled until the fire department could arrive and that arrival may well have been much faster had an alarm system been attached to the sprinkler system. It is probable that the Nelsons would not have been operating their faux antiques business had a meaningful business license requirement existed, but if they had, proper insurance should have been in place and a complete record of the responsible parties on file at city hall.

Any responsible business person in Galesburg should have little problem meeting any reasonable license requirements or paying a realistic license fee and those who either can't or won't meet the requirements are businesses Galesburg is frankly better without. The license ordinance should include a substantial penalty for persons found conducting unlicensed business in Galesburg and a mechanism should be in-place to accommodate whistle-blowing and rapid enforcement of the ordinance. As a side benefit consumers in Galesburg will have one more means of determining the credentials of local businesses.