Shelby, NC Explosion And Fire, May 1979
ROUTINE FIRE IS SUDDEN INFERNO; FIVE DIE, 25 HURT.
Shelby, N.C. (AP) -- A seemingly routine fire at a woman's boutique became a rumbling inferno when a wall collapsed in a fiery shower of brick and glass, killing five men and injuring at least 25 others.
Four Shelby firemen and one gas company employee were killed in the Friday night blast, said Shelby Police Capt. Harold Smith.
Killed instantly in the street in front of the building were:
Volunteer Firefighter GEORGE MAGNESS, 44.
Career Firefighter NATHAN HALL, 27.
Volunteer Firefighter DONALD MELTON, 24.
MAGNESS was also the chief of the 12-member volunteer fire department.
Career Firefighter FLOYD SHARTS, 31, was found dead beneath the rubble in the alley behind the building.
Gas department employee MAX BOWLING, who had gone to the scene to shut off the gas supply, was also found dead in the alley.
Assistant Fire Chief William Kennedy said firemen were at JE's, a women's clothing store in downtown Shelby, about 10 minutes and thought they had the blaze under control.
Then there was an explosion.
"There was no warning whatsoever. The building just fell around us. One of my men got killed right in front of me," said Fire Capt. Gerald Rogers.
"The wall caved in and the fire shot out," said Police Lt. J. J. Wall. "There were five or six firemen in front of me. Bricks fell all around them. I was just lucky." Wall was not injured.
Freddie Harrill, 31, a Shelby businessman, was driving through town when he said he saw smoke from the initial blaze and arrived in time to see the explosion.
"Firemen started running away from the building," Harrill said. "Within seconds, three, maybe four, the walls came tumbling down. I saw two firemen running with tumbling bricks close behind. Then I didn't see them. They were covered with bricks."
The blast caught shoppers and passers-by in a shower of glass and debris. Harrill said for a second or two afterward there was total silence.
"Then all hell broke loose," he said.
"There was chaos, pandemonium, people running screaming, crying."
Like a giant fist, the blast punched the front wall out of the clothing store. The ensuing fire gutted three nearby stores.
A spokeswoman for Cleveland County Hospital said at least 25 firemen and bystanders were treated at local hospitals. She said three were hospitalized. Their conditions were not immediately known.
Firemen continued to search the rubble Friday night to make sure there were no other victims trapped underneath. But authorities said they believed all the bodies were recovered.
Firefighters fought the blaze for four hours before bringing it under control about 10 p.m. Shelby Fire Marshall Delane Davis said he believed the explosion was caused by leaking natural gas. He said 14 fire companies were summoned after the explosion.
Companies that aided from Cleveland, Boiling Springs, Boiling Springs Rural, Grover, Kings Mountain, Oak Grove, Shanghai, Waco, Fallston and Polkville brought over 230 firefighters to the scene.
Destroyed were Geoffrey's Men's Clothing Store, JE's Department Store, the Bible Book Store, Wonderland Toys, Butler's Shoe Store and Eleanor Shops with damages totaling over $5 million.
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