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Two firefighters injured battle blaze

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Arson suspected in weekend fire on Frankfort Road

By Lisa King

Two firefighters were hospitalized after battling a weekend house fire on Frankfort Road that is being investigated as a possible arson.

Shelby County Fire Chief Bobby Cowherd said when firefighters arrived on the scene of the fire at 5:01 a.m. Saturday, the two-story home was already burning heavily.

One of the firefighters, Jerrett Barnes, received head and neck injuries from falling debris when the front facade of the house collapsed, and the other, Captain James Riddle, injured his shoulder when he fell through the floor.

None of the injuries were life-threatening, and both firefighters were treated and released from Jewish Hospital Shelbyville.

As Barnes was helping a fellow firefighter battle the blaze, he was knocked unconscious and strained a muscle in his neck when he was hit by a chunk of debris that fell 20 feet from the front of the building.

Barnes said all remembers is fighting the fire and then falling down.

"My main concern was that the guys up on the ladder were safe," he said.

After visiting the doctor on Tuesday, Barnes was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome. Barnes said the syndrome makes it difficult for him to gather his thoughts. He was scheduled to have a CT scan on Tuesday to determine the extent of his injury.

After being off work for a few days, Barnes is back on duty.

Riddle occurred his injury when he fell through the floor, his arm went out a window and his legs went through the floor.

“I was reaching through the window for a nozzle when the floor gave way beneath me,” he said.

Cowherd said that the fire was difficult to extinguish because of the architecture of the house.

“The house had several additions and had many roofs, including a metal roof on the back of the house,” he said. “This made it difficult to get to hot spots after the roof collapsed and required the fire department to remain on the scene all morning and early afternoon using saws to cut and remove debris and extinguish hot spots.”

Assistant Chief Jeff Ivers said it has been a long while since two firefighters have been injured at the same fire, and that the intensity of the fire contributed to that.

“It was a two-story house, and the fire was so heavy and so involved,” he said.

Riddle said he fell into the crawl space beneath the house. He added that he didn't wait to be rescued, but made it out of the house under his own power.

“The thing is, when I was falling, I didn't have time to be scared, and of course, my training took over,” he said. “But it was in the back of mind when I was falling, 'Is there fire under the floor, too'?"

Riddle is a 29-year veteran, having served 19 years in Jefferson County before coming to the Shelby County Department. He said his arm is still in a sling, and he is scheduled for an MRI to determine the extent of the damage to his shoulder.

“Typically, when a socket comes out, something usually tears,” he said.

Riddle said one reason the house burned so quickly is that it was an old house, built around the 1920s or '30s, and at that time, builders used what he called "balloon construction," which meant the walls reached all the way to the attic, instead of having blocks in between as modern structures do, which stops the fire to a degree.

Senior Deputy State Fire Marshal Robert Goodwin said that although arson has not yet been determined, he was called in because the blaze possessed certain suspicious attributes, mainly that the owner of the house was not living there but was in South Carolina at the time of the fire.

“The house had the utilities, including electricity, turned on, so we have those legitimate sources, so we are looking into how to classify it,” he said.

The house was not burned to the ground, but was too heavily damaged to be saved.

The fire is the latest in a string of arson-related blazes in Shelby County this year. Nine were charged to James Aaron Clark, 27, of Shelbyville, who was arrested last month after admitting that he set the fires. Clark is charged with one count of first-degree arson, a felony which carries a penalty of 20 years to life, three counts of second-degree arson, also a felony, and seven counts of criminal mischief related to the fires.

Clark is not a suspect in Saturday's fire, however, because he remains incarcerated at the Shelby County Detention Center.

Goodwin said that arson is on the rise throughout the nation as of late, but unlike Shelby County, most of those arsons are financially motivated.

“Arson for profit is on the rise due to the economy,” he said. “You have somebody trying to get out of their mortgage. People lose their jobs, and they're in a pinch. These are unfortunate times, and people are doing desperate things.”

The Shelbyville Fire Department and The Simpsonville Fire Department also responded to the blaze. Simpsonville Fire Chief Walter Jones said he sent an engine to Shelby County's Station 1 to be on standby in case it was needed while the other trucks were fighting the fire, which closed Frankfort Road for three hours.