Columbia, TN Fumes From Fire Kill 42 In Jail, June 1977


Columbia (UPI) -- Deadly cynaide and carbon monoxide fumes, gushing from a padded cell set afire by an emotionally disturbed runaway youth from Wisconsin, were blamed Monday for the deaths of 42 prisoners and visitors at the Maury County Jail Sunday.
Sheriff BILL VOSS said ANDY ZINMER, 16, a fugitive from a home for emotionally disturbed children in Dousman, Wis., would be charged with arson and 42 counts of manslaughter for the deaths of 34 prisoners and 8 visitors who died in the blaze during visiting hours Sunday.
VOSS said deputy sheriffs "did everything humanly possible" to save the victims. He said he had "no reason whatsoever" to believe the deputies were negligent.
The state fire marshal's office reported three of the blood samples taken from eight of the dead contained "relatively high levels of cynaide" and all had high levels of carbon monoxide poisoning.
TOM COPELAND, chief of fire protection, said the fumes were emitted from the foam plastic padding, and its polyvinyl chloride covering, in the cell where ZINMER was transferred after he flooded his juvenile detention quarters by causing a toilet to overflow.
Fifty-six inmates and about 40 visitors were in the prisoner area shortly before 2 p.m. CDT when ZIMNER apparently set fire to his cell with a cigarette given him by someone visiting another prisoner. He began screaming "I'm on fire!" Five deputies were in the administration area at the front of the jail.
ZINMER, his clothing in flames, was dragged screaming from his cell by two deputies while chief criminal investigator JERRY WAYNE DICKEY, carrying a ring of keys, ran back toward the cellblock area to free the prisoners.
DICKEY collided with stampeding vistors screaming "Fire! Fire!" and dropped the keys. He said he found them after crawling on his hands and knees for "two or three minutes." But by then he was unable to get back to the cellblock because of the blinding smoke.
A bulldozer and sledgehammers battered through the reinforced concrete walls at the back of the jail while a wrecker, straining so hard at times that its front wheels left the ground, jerked bars from cell windows.
Firemen wearing gas masks finally struggled through the smoke to reach the victims, most of whom were piled in a corner of the workhouse area. The last sounds they heard may have been of rescuers beating down the walls in a futile rescue attempt.
Ambulances took 75 persons to the Maury County Hospital here, 42 dead and 33 injured. Twelve of the injured, including ZIMNER, were transferred to Nashville hospitals.
State officials said they were attempting to track down the manufacturer of the foam padding in ZINMER'S cell.
ZINMER, listed in serious condition at Vanderbilt Hospital, was first arrested on Feb. 28, 1975 for setting fire to a towel rack in an office building in Superior, Wis., according to police there. He was questioned last June by juvenile authorities for threatening to set fire to his home.
The youngster, described by his mother as an emotionally disturbed loner, escaped from the Lad Lake Home 38 miles west of Milwaukee last Thursday and was picked up by sheriff's deputies Saturday morning while walking along Interstate 65.
Deputy MIKE SMITH said ZINMER was kept in a juvenile cell until he began causing trouble and was then taken to the padded cell.

Kingsport News Tennessee 1977-06-28


Everything was done

I am sorry for your loss, but I can attest that everyone worked their butts off trying to get those guys out of the jail. At one point Junior Gray had two wreckers hooked up to the bars trying to pull them to where people could get in.

No sharpshooters either.

I was a kid and I remember.

I was a kid and I remember. I was around 8 at the time and I remember my mom, family, and an entire community of people, especially blacks who died senselessly. There were people in there srceaming for the guards to let them out. They stated that they would not run, but to just save them. They did have sharpshooters on top of the building. Those responsible should never be able to sleep who allowed all of those people to die. Some of them died through suffocation because many of them were just being thrown in body bags and weren't even dead. Columbia has alot of secrets. Remember the Columbia riots? Many secrets are still floating around down there between the older survivors.

I was there

I was there as a firefighter, we did everything we could think of to get those men out, from the instant the alarm was sounded guards and prison employees were trying to get to the trapped men.

Maury County, Tn. Jail Fire of 1977

My mother, had married one of the victims in this tragedy (Billy Anderson). They got married in 1976 in Honduras, he was in the process of filling papers to bring her to the US; however, he returned to the US and communicated with her for a short period of time, then she never heard from him. All this time my mom thought he didn't want to be with her and just forgot about it. Recently she ask us; her daughters to look into it because she was just curious to know what happened with him. We found out through you and other online sources that he had passed away while visiting in Jail. He and four members of his family died that day due to a fire that started inside the jail.
I am so glad to finally know what happened even though is very unfortunately, my mother will now know he was a good person and the reason why he never came back to her, not because he did not want to but because he had passed.
Thank you,

Maury County, Tn. Jail Fire of 1977

I was only 2 years old at the time. My father actually survived the fire but unfortunately my cousin Robert (Bobby) Jones died at a very young age. I had to grow up not knowing my cousin that I have been told that he loved me so much. And from what I was told from my mother who was a witness at this fire states that everything that could be done was not. They actually had my father in a body bag to be transported to the make shift morge at a local funeral home and he managed to wiggle his toes. Then they finally took my father to hospital. Thank God. They had already told my mother that my father and cousin was dead. But no, not anything was done to save my cousin or the other human beings that were locked behind bars and concrete to burn to death. They even had sharp shooters on top of surrounding buildings to shoot anyone that came out of the jail or tried to enter the jail. That was a very sad time and for the families that lost loved ones it is still a sad time. This fire is something my mother will never forget. My father passed away November 3, 2005 and even up until that time he would never talk to me about the fire or my cousin that passed in that fire. I believe that more could have been to save my cousin and the other prisoners. These were people that under our constitution was innocent until proven guilty. 42 human beings were put to death due to lack of compassion from authorities.