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Fire damages building

Jul. 27, 2014 @ 10:00 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Jonathan Shell was driving east to downtown Huntington about 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

When he reached Camden Park, he saw smoke billowing from miles away. When he got closer, he feared the worst.

"I knew it had to be one of Huntington's biggest buildings," Shell said. "It looked liked it was City Hall."

The Huntington Fire Department's full staff, as well as volunteer fire departments from Green Valley, Barboursville, Ceredo and Ohio River Road, fought and miraculously contained a downtown fire that started in an upper floor of the seven-floor historic Morris Building, 845 4th Ave.

Reported at 8:39 a.m. Sunday, the fire was the city's largest downtown fire since the tragic Jan. 13, 2007, fire at the Emmons Apartments that claimed nine lives.

No residents were injured in the Morris fire. One HFD firefighter received a leg injury.

During the height of the fire, sheets of ash rained down on firefighters and bystanders below. Black smoke billowed from the Morris' tar roof as stormy winds blackened the sky past the high-rise St. James building one block eastward.

The 10 or so residents of Morris Building were all evacuated from the building, which houses several business including two popular ground-floor restaurants -- Backyard Pizza and Raw Bar and The Peddler, both owned by Drew Hetzer.

Everyone safely got out of the building, confirmed Gordon Merry, Cabell County EMS director.

Eric Adkins, a fifth-floor resident of the Morris Building for the past year and a half, was awakened by pounding on his door.

"Somebody was banging on the door. I thought it was my Dad, but when I opened the door, it was a firefighter with an axe saying we had to get out of there," Adkins said. "I grabbed some stuff to put on and went down the stairwell, and it was all filled with smoke. There was so much smoke in the entrance, you couldn't see out of the building."

While all of the offices in the building were closed at the time, a small crew was on the first floor at Backyard Pizza and Raw Bar, which is owned by Drew and Megan Hetzer, who also own the adjacent new pub and restaurant, The Peddler. After sounding the fire alarm and shutting down all of the appliances, the crew escaped the building.

With the Morris Building sandwiched between a short stack of buildings up 9th Street and similar-sized multi-floor units such as the Renaissance Building along 4th Avenue, Huntington Fire Chief Carl Eastham said put out the call for mutual aid and for all HFD members to respond. Eastham wanted to prevent what firefighters call "a block party," when a downtown fire eats a whole block of adjacent buildings before crews can get enough aerial or roof-top units to respond.

Eastham said he thanked everyone for their swift response that had all three of HFD's aerial units, one each from Barboursville, Ceredo and a small one from Green Valley, attacking the roof-top fire from above, and from all angles in the front, sides and in the alley. The Huntington Police Department and Cabell County EMS also assisted.

Shortly before noon, a Huntington firefighter received a knee injury while fighting the fire from the roof of the adjacent Renaissance Building.

"We were setting up to prevent it from spreading to any other buildings and getting enough ladders and enough water to combat it," Eastham said as the operations wound down about 1 p.m. "Once we got enough people and apparatus to attack it, we were able to really go after it."

Firefighters busted down the doors to gain access to the Hibachi building next door. They also gained access to the top of the Renaissance Building from Huntington Capt. Scot Mellert, owns Pet Palace in the Renaissance Building.

Eastham said roof access was crucial in containing the blaze.

"Using the Renaissance Building as a staging area was vital. With Scot having a business there, he had keys to get everybody in and wherever they needed to go, and that was significant," Eastham said.

While the HPD temporary evacuated pets who were in the basement, Mellert gave his fellow firefighters swift access to that roof to be able to attack the fire from another vantage point. The pets were not injured.

The fire was contained in spite of the weather. Shortly after 11 a.m., ladder trucks from Huntington and Barboursville departments were taken down because of the threat of an approaching storm with predicted 50 mph winds and hail.

By noon, the storm, which brought wind gusts of only about 20 miles an hour, had skirted the city. HFD reported that the building was "smoking in a few spots but that most of the fire is under control."

Dressed in his Sunday church clothes, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams was on the scene and said he had also contacted the water company and the sanitary board to have them ready to go.

"I sure hope we can save the other buildings," said Williams, who was checking in with Huntington firefighter and neighboring business owner Capt. Scot Mellert.

"We gave it our best shot," Mellert told the mayor. "We gave it everything we had."

Although more than 100,000 gallons of water were poured into the Morris Building, Eastham said he believes the building should not be a full loss and that the first-floor businesses, including Backyard Pizza and The Peddler, should be able to return after extensive cleanup because of water damage.

"We were very fortunate that this building was significantly built," Eastham said. "It was with able to stand up to what it had going against it."

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