Carthage block fire: | local history

CARTHAGE — What is now a park was 20 years ago a row of buildings with shops on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors.

In the early hours of March 2, 2002, the north side of the 200 block of State Street was engulfed in a fire believed to be caused by a faulty wood boiler in the basement of one of the buildings.

According to a timeline from “Fire,” a special Carthage Republican Tribune supplement, the alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. this Saturday morning.

John J. Storms, then chief of the Carthage Volunteer Fire Department, said he was preparing early to go to the RV show in Syracuse.

He remembers that he parked at the fire station that was then part of the village municipal building, 120 S. Mechanic St.

“When I saw the amount of smoke on State Street, I knew we were going to have a long day,” the former chef said. “I was surprised how quickly what was happening there fell into place. It went from bad to worse.”

Deputy Fire Chief Norman L. Barkley Jr. made the initial call for mutual aid by requesting ladder trucks from neighboring departments. Called to other business, Mr Storms went on the radio to repeat demands to an incredulous dispatcher.

Richard E. Madill, Jefferson County’s chief fire coordinator, called Mr. Storms on his cellphone en route to the blaze to formulate a plan of attack.

The fire quickly spread between buildings that had party walls and through upper levels that had no firewalls. More than two dozen firefighters came to help battle the blaze, along with more than 300 first responders, according to published reports.

At 6:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. “the first two buildings collapse in quick succession,” the Tribune timeline says, noting just before the buildings fell to the street, firefighters were nearby “assessing the situation.” “A Carthage fire engine is hit by debris and equipment belonging to several fire companies is buried.”

A massive effort by residents and firefighters to remove property and equipment from the path to hell ensued over the next hour.

At 9:40 a.m., the village’s acting president, Michael J. Sligar, declared a state of emergency, states a March 3, 2002, article in the Watertown Daily Times, giving firefighters the power to do whatever was necessary to save the buildings.

Initially, the water to fight the fire came from the municipal network. But at 10 a.m., the water supply shared by Carthage and West Carthage runs out and water is drawn from the Black River.

Before dark, the decision was made to create a firebreak by demolishing an empty two-story building to prevent the fire from spreading further down North Mechanic Street.

For days after the initial fire, stains revived and the remains of burned buildings were toppled.

Village President G. Wayne McIlroy was out of town when the fire broke out and returned the following day.

“I came to South Mechanic Street and thought ‘Holy cow.’ It was unbelievable. I didn’t expect such devastation,” he said. “There were a lot of people involved — at the village, city, county and state level. »

The village chairman said his vice-chairman, Mr Sligar, had been “very helpful” to me.

“He made sure it was cleaned up, not buried,” Mr McIlroy said.

Mr Sligar described the town center blaze as ‘dramatic and traumatic’.

“There was an incredible first responder response the day of the fire from Jefferson and Lewis county emergency services,” he said.

He said afterwards that “the political support went above and beyond to get the cleanup done quickly.”

He noted that Assemblyman H. Robert Nortz and State Senator James W. Wright were instrumental in obtaining funding and assistance.

He said the county and state provided dump trucks and operators to help with the cleanup.

“We had a fleet of 12 trucks to transport the debris as fast as the contractor could demolish the buildings,” Mr Sligar said, noting that the material had been dug up and not buried to help with any future development.

According to Mr Sligar, the village was not charged for the use of trucks or labor and tipping fees were waived.

After the fire, the community came together to help those who had lost everything.

Mr Sligar said churches in village ecumenical ministries have a voucher scheme in place, working with local businesses to provide items to displaced apartment residents while being responsible for the funds. The American Red Cross, Foreign Wars Veterans Dionne-Rumble Post 7227 and Bassett-Baxter American Legion Post 789 provided aid and shelter.

“Carthage, as a linked village, rose to the occasion, cared for the people who were injured and took care of them,” he said. “It was a heartbreaking event.”

He noted that the heroes of the incident were emergency service personnel, government support and churches.

Following the fire, there were several lawsuits arising from the demolition of buildings during firefighting.

Mr Sligar, who was an engineer for the City of Watertown at the time, said “there was no arguing with the actions taken. No argument could be advanced on the way in which the fire was fought. The people involved were well trained and well qualified to make the decisions.

“It’s a very beautiful park, but we can’t forget the stress and the emotional strain of the fire,” he said. “I close my eyes and I can still see the businesses that were there.”

The fire went down in history at Stefano’s Pizzeria. According to the restaurant’s website, even as the block burned, owner Stefano Margo struggled to move out and stay downtown. The business temporarily moved to a small storefront on Canal Street while the owners tried to determine if it was possible to rebuild on the burnt-out property. In 2005, the business moved back to State Street, across from the original location. The family bought the building last year.

“At first people were talking about rebuilding and staying downtown, but that didn’t happen,” McIlroy said.

According to a report by then-village planner John McHugh in 2004, the Carthage Industrial Development Corp., the Economic Development Corp. de Carthage and the Carthage Area Hospital have formed the Carthage Community Development Group LLC to continue the redevelopment of the fire site.

At that time, the Carthage Area Hospital planned to build an 80-bed nursing home on the property. To this end, the CCDG purchased the 12 plots which belonged to six different owners.

By 2006, it had become apparent that the development of the hospital would take time to gain the necessary state approval. The CIDC Board of Trustees funded the development of a greenspace plan which was completed in 2007 by Jeff’s Landscaping as well as the development of a 20-space parking lot aided by Jefferson County and the Cities of Wilna and Champion. The village, Slack Chemical Company, TF Wright & Sons, and Carthage Savings and Loan facilitated the installation of a clock on the property. Now the Village Green Park is a venue for community events.

Although the nursing home never materialized, the hospital established the Community Health Center near North Mechanic Street, which now houses the Women’s Way to Wellness and the Carthage Family Health Center.

“It went well, the way things ended,” the village president said. “It’s a big improvement for downtown. But unfortunately, because of the fire, people and businesses have been displaced.

“What a fire,” Carthage historian Lynn M. Thornton said of remembering the incident.

At the time, Ms. Thornton was a fourth grade teacher at West Carthage Elementary. The schoolteacher had previously taught about the Great Fire of 1884 that swept most of downtown Carthage from the Black River to North Washington Street and from the north side of State Street to Furnace Street. She’s even developed a walking tour that highlights the historic path of this West Carthage fire, hopping through the Black River Islands to Carthage and ending at State Street Cemetery.

Living the story of the 2002 block fire, his students documented the fire and compared it to the previous one.

A website, which is no longer active, has been created with interviews of people affected by the fire and those involved in its fight.

The 1884 was much more expansive. It covered 70 acres with 200 homes lost, 1,000 people displaced and 50 businesses lost, compared to 1 acre for this century’s fire, nine buildings destroyed, 150 people displaced and eight businesses lost. Five fire departments, some of which arrived by train, fought the 1884 fire, while about 31 departments fought the most recent fire. In both fires, there were no fatalities and only minor injuries. Mr Storms recalled that some of the injured were spectators suffering from smoke inhalation.

Ms. Thornton’s student presentation ended with the following notation:

“No matter the year, any fire takes a lot out of a community, but it also brings out the best in many people who come together to help those who have suffered loss. In 1884, the Red Cross was a new organization, but it sent aid to the victims of the fire. In 2002, the American Red Cross set up homeless shelters in the American Legion and provided both shelter and meals. In both cases, people’s lives have been shattered and their neighbors have stepped up to help them get back together.

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