Remembering the Marketplace of the Midsouth

The Shelby County Building

December 22, 2003

More than 100 firefighters battle flames that destroyed Jack’s Food Store at the corner of Jefferson and Main. Apartments on the upper floors of the building were vacant due to remodeling. But the building was not searched Sunday because of the possibility of collapse.

Tremendous flames lit up the sky early Sunday as separate two-alarm fires gutted a pair of Memphis landmarks, affecting the livelihoods of hundreds.

Within two hours, overnight fires struck Jack's Food Store downtown and the Shelby County Building at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Hundreds of vendors who arrived Sunday morning at the Mid-South Fairgrounds found their wares for the monthly "Big One" flea market smoldering in the ruins.

Vendors, some of them crying, described losing nearly all they had in the fire because of a planned, big pre-Christmas sale. Most of the merchandise was not insured.

The unusual test for firefighters began at 2:24 a.m. when downtown residents saw flames rising several stories high from Jack's, at Jefferson and Main.

More than 100 firefighters battling the blaze had the fire under control by 3:35 a.m., but not before the store and the structure housing it were destroyed.

Bricks from a wall collapse blocked Jefferson, as workers attempted to knock down other loose sections Sunday afternoon. The entire roof burned off.

Because of the possibility of further collapse, firefighters were not able to search the building Sunday afternoon to determine whether anyone was inside the building when it burned, Battalion Chief Fred Steward said.

Apartments on the second and third floors were vacant, one of the store owners said.

Fire investigators would not be able to find the cause and starting point of the fire until the building was safe to enter.

Kevin Crooks saw the fire from the 16th floor of the Exchange building two blocks away.

"When the fire hit the roof everything went up," said Crooks.


Shelby County Bld & Midway circa 1922

"I could see flames and debris flying nearly as high" as high rise buildings in the area, he said.

Teher Hasan, whose family has owned Jack's for the past decade, said the roof, damaged in the July 22 storm, had just been replaced. The upper floors, which had been apartments were being refurbished, he said.

"We've been here a long time. . . . We're hoping to re-open, but I don't know," he said.

Timothy Hose saw the fire from the Hernando-DeSoto Bridge.

When he arrived at the fire, "there was an enormous amount of fire. . . . The top was entirely in flames," he said.

Jack Gaia, who opened the store in 1950 and sold it in 1994, said he was saddened by the destruction.

"We had many good times, a lot of memories," he said.

The store's proximity to the courts drew judges, lawyers, police and court personnel.

"Less than two hours after the fire at Jack's was reported, calls started coming in about a fierce fire at the Shelby County Building.

Firefighters began arriving just after 4:10 a.m., and had the fire under control by 5:23 a.m.

The building was reduced to a brick shell. Only gnarled metal girders remained from the interior. Nearly all the merchandise left in the building for the flea market was incinerated.

Streams of water from a snorkel extinguished a stubborn flare-up in the building's bell tower.

"Fire was coming through the roof," Battalion chief David Franks said. "We could not send anyone in."

Building engineers would have to examine the building before Fire Department investigators and federal Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms agents could get inside the building to find the cause, he said.

There were about 300 booths in the building and hundreds more set up outside and in two other buildings.

Even those who did not lose merchandise lost revenue they would have made in the busiest time of year.

"Being Christmas, many brought more merchandise," said Randa Kahn, general manager of the event. "They brought everything they had."

And even though vendors set up in other buildings could have continued, they decided to close the event "in the spirit of loss for the other vendors," Kahn said. She said the event will return the third weekend of next month.

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

Image from http://www.sv-2.com/Catalog_Artist_DTankersley.asp


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