“I was pretty sure we lost people”: How a Burlington fire almost became deadly

BURLINGTON, Iowa – "Oh, my God, I'm stuck in a building.  Help me please."

It began with a terrified woman calling Des Moines County dispatch crying for help.

"What's your address?" asked the dispatcher, Kevin Newberry.

The woman crying for help was inside the downtown Burlington Tama building which in a matter of hours would be reduced to rubble.

"They're going to get a ladder to you," reassured Newberry.   "I want you to stay as calm as you can, okay?"

Help was just down the block.

"Our initial priority was the rescue of the female from the third floor," said Firefighter/Paramedic Todd VanScoy, an 11 year veteran in the Burlington Fire Department.

On August 4, 2018, a fire became an inferno in the heart of Burlington.

Burlington fire teams rescued 24-year-old Sara Zeller of Fairfield who was on the third floor as the fire started to spread.
She wouldn't be the last person on that floor, though.

"We couldn't go into the fourth floor," said firefighter Garrett Johnson.    "It was too hot."

So Johnson and other firefighters backed off and left the building to burn.

"We had to back down the stairwell.  We could feel the heat and it was just too hot."

Johnson was learning on the job.  He joined the fire department eight months earlier and was actually getting training on residential house fires just minutes before the emergency call came in that night.

Among the first on the scene was Battalion Chief Bruce Workman.  He surveyed the entire building and found the worst of the fire was in the back.

"This whole inner courtyard was full of flame on three stories," he remembered.

Burlington firefighters were assisted by several other agencies while trying to control the fire that gutted the historic Tama building on August 4, 2018 (Photography by Mike Roberson)

Firefighters quickly realized this fire was growing out of control.

The Tama building is actually two adjoining structures.  Both are part of a $12-million dollar renovation underway by Des Moines architect Doug Wells.

Fire walls hadn't been built yet.  The sprinkler system wasn't yet connected.   Add to that wood framing and unfinished drywall, open doorways and open stairwells.

Little would stop this fire from spreading.

And the worst was still to come.

"There's always danger," explained firefighter Van Scoy.   "Danger is always lurking around the corner."

This time the danger was outside.

Crews had pulled back just as the building started disintegrating.

First, the north wall collapsed right where Garrett Johnson and three other firefighters were stationed.

"We all thought it was coming down on us."

Johnson and three other huddled in a corner to protect themselves from falling brick walls.

But they faced another, just as deadly, danger.

"We had water still flowing back there," said Johnson.

The collapsing walls brought down active power lines.

"We kept climbing on top of things to try to stay out of the water and not get electrocuted."

Other firefighters could only watch.

"When that wall fell down and the power lines came with it, I thought we had just lost four brothers," said firefighter Zach Schlueter, another new firefighter who joined the department less than a year before the fire.

But even veterans were worried.   It was difficult to see other crews because of the heavy smoke and now the dust from collapsing walls.

"I was... I was pretty sure we lost people," said firefighter VanScoy.

But Johnson and the other fire crews escaped injury.

"I was happy to still be in there with those guys and happy to still be alive."

It wasn't the last close call.

Sparks fly as a building starts to collapse at the Tama building in Burlington on August 4, 2018. (Photography by Mike Roberson)

An hour later the ground started to shake.

The east wall was next to collapse.  And it was right where Fort Madison firefighters had arrived to help..

"As I turned my head, they were gone," VanScoy remembered.

"And it was our worst nightmare."

 

 

"When the other side of the building collapsed, we all thought Ft Madison's ladder truck had just gotten buried," said Schlueter.

"You just prayed," added Johnson.

But the Fort Madison crew had moved moments earlier.

It was one of several stories that night of close calls, luck, and good training.

The Tama building fire has seared itself in the memories of even the most veteran firefighters

"A lot of us there never experienced anything like that," said firefighter/EMT Dave Ewinger.

He should know, he's been on the job 28 years.

He was a pump operator that night, making sure crews got the water they needed to fight the fire.

He was in the smoke for six hours when he needed to be relieved.  He sat down on a curb just as part of the building collapsed, sending a live powerline just a few feet from where he was.

"I wasn't sure if I had found safety for myself after getting out of the smoke."

He was later one of a handful of firefighters who needed to be treated at the hospital for minor injuries.

Today, the scene is all rubble.  You can see the scorch marks on the walls.

And you can imagine what it was like on that August night.

But those who fought this fire, and see the rubble every day, have a very personal link to this historic structure that lays in ruins.

It's seared into the memories of firefighters like Garrett Johnson.

"When you go by it, you just replay it and think how incredibly lucky we were."