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Flames leapt high into the frigid predawn air Wednesday as dozens of firefighters from several departments struggled to combat both the flames and Mother Nature at a devastating blaze that destroyed three downtown businesses.
But before firefighters even got on the scene, a heroic Shelbyville Police officer, who had spotted the flames while responding to a burglary alarm at the site – possibly triggered by the fire – rescued four men living in an apartment above a burning restaurant.
Officer Kelly Malone heard a smoke detector going off, saw the flames, called in the fire, and dashed up to get the men out of the burning building, Shelbyville Police Chief Danny Goodwin said.
He said the men all got out unharmed, thanks to Malone.
“There is no doubt that if not for her actions, we could have had a much great tragedy,” he said.
Malone was unavailable for comment because of her work schedule, but Goodwin said he wanted to commend her publically for her actions.
“As chief, I appreciate her efforts; she is a terrific police officer,” he said. “She got them out of there alive.”
Firefighters did their part, also, to save keep the fire from spreading, arriving on the scene quickly, to be greeted by a blazing inferno, accompanied by wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour and blowing snow, which made an already dangerous task even more hazardous.
They managed to contain the blaze to three buildings on the 600 block of Main Street, which included Fiesta Mexicana, Creative Spirits Counseling Service and a vacant storefront being renovated for expansion by Fiesta Mexicana.
Shelbyville Assistant Fire Chief Chris Spaulding said within two minutes the first fire engine was on the scene, and in minutes, the street was swarming with firefighters from departments from Shelbyville, Shelby County, Simpsonville, East 60 and Bagdad.
“The guys had hoses deployed just like that,” he said.
From 40 to 50 firefighters fought the blaze at 614, 616 and 618 Main St., while some departments sent a truck to Shelbyville’s station, on standby in case another fire should break out elsewhere in the city.
“Thank God that didn’t happen,” Spaulding said.
Spaulding said the fire apparently started in the vacant building being renovated by Fiesta Mexicana, at 618 Main St., and spread to the rest of the building, including the apartment above the restaurant, which housed the four men rescued by Malone, who worked at the restaurant, who got out only with the clothing they were wearing.
Spaulding said that the moment he heard the call go out for a fire in the 600 block of Main Street, he knew it was bound to be devastating.
“I was getting dressed, and that call went out and said there was fire coming out of a window downtown, and I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ That’s one thing no firefighter wants to hear,” he said.
That’s because buildings on Main Street in just about every community are old, usually historic structures, built close together or adjoining, and fire is apt to spread very quickly.
But in the case of Wednesday’s fire, a common feature of Main Street buildings actually helped, he said.
“When they built them, they put fire walls in them, which contains the fire to certain areas, to keep them from destroying an entire block, and that’s what helped us,” he said.
“We had one fire wall there [in the first building] and was hoping to contain it there, but it was so much ahead of us, and it was actually in the attic, it collapsed and went over the firewall. So then, we knew what we had to do was get to that other firewall and keep it from getting over into the computer store. And that’s what we did. Another thing that really helped us was the responders. If it wasn’t for them…”
An investigation into the cause of the fire is being conducted by Shelbyville Fire Department’s arson investigator Brandon Woods and the Shelbyville Police Department. Kentucky State Police Arson Investigator Kevin Dunn was initially contacted as well, but decided not to participate, he said.
“I spoke to them yesterday, and they seem to have everything well in hand,” he said.
“We are pretty much handling everything internally here,” Spaulding said. “We are taking interviews from everybody associated with those businesses. We can’t speculate on the cause right now.”
Goodwin said his officer’s part in the investigation consists of interviewing everyone who had any knowledge of the buildings.
“We are just aiding them in any way we can in conducting interviews and getting the information to them so they can make a determination of the cause, if they can,” he said.
Goodwin said that Central Dispatch has been receiving burglar alarm drops for a while at the site, while construction was going on, but when officers would go to check it out, it was a false alarm.
“We have been getting multiple false alarms from there,” he said.
It is not known what role, if any, the alarms would play in the cause of the fire.
Dunn, one of KSP’s foremost arson investigators, said that determining a cause for the blaze can be very difficult in these types of situations, when a structure is totally destroyed by fire. This case is especially difficult, Spaulding said, because fire officials made the decision very quickly to demolish the building where the fire originated because it was unsafe and could fall in and harm people on the sidewalk or street, leaving investigators with much less to go on than in an ordinary fire.
Crews demolished the building shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, after getting the go-ahead from Atmos Energy crews who had to shut down service to the buildings before demolition could take place.
Main Street was closed to traffic between 6th and 7th streets until Wednesday evening, when one lane was opened, and Spaulding said he expects at least one lane of the street to remain closed possibly until today to allow crews to remove rubble and for firefighters to go back and forth checking for smoldering fire.