Dozens of firefighters responded to a fire that destroyed the roof of the Abilene Reporter-News building in downtown and forced the newspaper’s staff to evacuate.
John Burnett, Abilene Fire Department deputy chief, said it is too early to determine the cause of the fire and the extent of damages. Water flooded the basement and the roof was burned through.
“Anytime you get an older building downtown, which has been renovated and remodeled several times over the years, it gives us challenges,” Burnett said. “Downtown Abilene has narrow streets and the water supply down here has also given us some challenges, and that’s why we sent all the crews we brought in.”
The fire was first reported at the newspaper building at 9:20 a.m. Thursday. Burnett said the department received numerous calls about the structure fire, and when fire crews arrived on scene, smoke was billowing from the top of the building.
“They quickly laddered the building and determined that there was an electrical fire at that time,” Burnett said.
Before fighting the fire, crews waited for the power company to disconnect power. The fire quickly grew in intensity and started to catch the roof assembly on fire. Crews inside the building and on the roof were evacuated after about an hour when Fire Chief Cande Flores arrived and determined it was unsafe to continue operations, Burnett said.
“At this time, we went defensive and our aerial ladders, using master streams, extinguished the fire,” Burnett said. “Right now the crews are working to look for hot spots and determine the stability of the building. Our investigators have not been inside yet.”
Around 12:45 p.m., eight crews with five engine companies and three ladder companies were on the scene. About 60 firefighters assisted. Burnett also said it was quickly determined that assistance would be needed and called for a second alarm and additional ladder truck.
Though there were no signs of collapse, crews did take precautions and move Engine One out of the collapse zone. No injuries were sustained, but Burnett said rehydration was key to fight exhaustion from exertion. Burnett said crews will start collapsing the scene later in the afternoon.
Reporter-News editor Greg Jaklewicz said the experience was similar to that of a summer incident in which a transformer blew. Lights were flickering in the office, TVs turned off and someone next door alerted the two in the newsroom that the building was on fire.
“I went up to our roof, and there it was,” Jaklewicz said. “It looked like electrical fire sparks you’d see in a welding shop. A few minutes later, here come the firefighters. They gave me the boot, and I needed to get out of there. I went downstairs and grabbed my laptop, my camera and my charger.”
Jaklewicz said the first step was to make sure everyone was accounted for. Because the fire was so high up, he said he wasn’t worried about immediate danger.
“Then the next step was to cover the news. It’s interesting watching your building burn and interesting being on the other end of it.” We’re taking pictures and video and camped out on top of the Grace.”
Though the fire is under control, there is water and smoke damage. Jaklewicz said the final step is planning what they have to do. The website is still open and reporters will still attend sporting and other events.
“It’s a busy time of year, and everything got suspended today.”
The newspaper has been published since 1881, and, according to Jaklewicz, there was a fire early on in history.
“We’re the news,” Jaklewicz said. “There’s a lot of history in this building, a lot of archives.”
Jaklewicz has worked for the Reporter-News on and off since 1976, and has served as editor for 18 months.
“As journalists, you get in that vibe. You’re covering, and it hits you later,” Jaklewicz said. “It’s been my place that I’ve come back to time and time again. You never know where things like this are going to happen.
“We had so many offers already for us to work. It’s a competitive world in the media but I think there’s solidarity in that. A lot of people are pulling for us and we appreciate that, it will get us through today and the days ahead.”