Des Moines, IA Department Store Fire, Nov 1978


Des Moines -- "I've never seen anything to compare with it."
A Des Moines firefighter, after nine years on the department, used that phrase Monday to describe the blaze that killed 11 persons Sunday morning at the massive Younkers store in Merle Hay Mall.
"The building was totally involved (when we arrived), both floors. It was coming out windows and doors on all sides -- either smoke or fire. We never were able to get over 50 feet into the store in the first hour and a half."
The flames, as yet of undetermined origin, erupted shortly before 9:30 a.m. Sunday. Firemen received the alarm at 9:31.
"We thought everyone had got out of the building for the first couple of hours," The Gazette was told. "That was the general impression. I don't think it would have made any difference to the victims. I don't think they were aware of what happened."
The body of the 11th victim was located Sunday night as authorities sifted through the rubble. Ten charred bodies were found earlier in the gutted building, making it the deadliest fire in Des Moins history.
District Fire Chief Tony DeFino and Des Moines Fire Chief Lee Williams said they had no idea what caused the fire. Williams, however, said it was obvious it spread "with an explosion like force."
The blaze broke out as workers began arriving to prepare for scheduled opening at noon in the northwest Des Moines mall.
Craig Stillman, one of the estimated 20 employees in the store at the time, told officials the workers heard "this really big rush of wind," but heard no actual explosion.
Other witnesses said the fire appeared to explode like a ball of flame.
Roy Berens, an employee at a service station across the street from the burning building, said he first saw smoke.
"I was standing over here and saw a little bit of white smoke coming from the store," Berens said.
"It started getting darker. All of a sudden, it went
'boom' and black smoke shot out all over the building. Flames were shooting out the doors."
Store Supervisor George Ruhmland said employees in the store when the blaze broke out included maintenance and loading dock workers and some department supervisors.
"I was standing right by the door. All of a sudden I heard a gust of wind and saw smoke and I got out," Ruhmland said. "Everyone else got out fast. It was like a ball of flame. Some people had to break windows to climb out."
Firefighters battled for several hours to bring the blaze, which was spewing huge clouds of black smoke over the city, under control. Their efforts were hindered because the building did not have enough openings in its walls to pour water onto the flames.
The blaze was finally controlled about 3 p.m.

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Larry Armstrong

How terribly sad, and I'm so very sorry for your loss. I was a senior in high school that November, and I remember the fire very well. It was a tremendous tragedy felt all over the state of Iowa. Some years later I moved to Des Moines, very near Merle Hay Mall, and even though the Younkers store was rebuilt, I could never bring myself to go inside.

My uncle was Larry

My uncle was Larry Armstrong. I never got to meet him but i grew up hearing he was a good man. The night before the fire he went out to eat with my aunt n my cousin was really upset that he couldn't go so he told his dad " i hate u n i wish u would die". So my aunt n uncle left to enjoy their night out. The day of the fire was my uncle's day off but he woke up early to go check something out at work at the younkers store cuz he was a manager there. The fire broke out n my uncle was lost. My aunt had to identify his body n my mom told me something about his arm falling out of the sheet n my aunt just broke down. My cousin never got to tell his dad he was sorry n that he loved him n didn't want him to die. So i learned a valuable lesson out of it....i just wished my uncle was still alive!:-( I love u uncle i hope ur R.I.P

Lee Williams was my grandfather

And his son, Lanny Williams was (if I remember correctly) a Fire Captain at the time - both were on the scene of the Younkers fire. It's a bit ironic that it was due to the lack of sprinklers that helped exacerbate the spreading of the fire. A few years prior to the fire, my grandfather - on the Today Show - had himself set on fire in a hospital bed with sprinklers at the ready to show that all hospitals would benefit from having adequate sprinklers and that lives would be saved. After the bed was put alit, the sprinklers immediately went into action and doused the fire with my grandfather not even being singed.

Lee Williams served on the Des Moines Fire Department for 40+ years, with 25 of those as Fire Chief. He was credited by his contemporaries as taking the DSM Fire Dept from the horse and buggy days into the cutting edge of the 20th Century. He passed away due to complications of cancer in 1985.