By CHERIL VERNON and MARY RAINWATER
City of Palestine officials have reported the discovery of two victims at the scene of an early morning fire that destroyed a 100-plus year old building in downtown Palestine Saturday.
“At approximately 4 p.m. two victims were located at the scene,” Palestine’s interim city manager Wendy Ellis reported in a media release. “At this time a positive identification of the victims has not been made. They were taken to the coroner’s office for autopsy.”
Just after midnight, Palestine Police dispatch received a report of a structure fire at 119 E. Oak St. Palestine Fire Department responded with three engines and a command vehicle.
Upon arrival at the scene, heavy fire conditions in the rear of the building and heavy smoke throughout the structure were encountered.
Within minutes of being on scene, the structure suffered the first of multiple collapses making it impossible for fire fighters to enter the building. A defensive strategy was employed to protect exposures and fire personnel on scene.
There were unconfirmed reports of the possibility of individuals being inside the building.
PFD Lt. Devin Jackson did, however, say at the scene that at least one person made it out of the building before the structure was fully engulfed.
According to witnesses at the scene, that person was an older man who was dressed only in a pair of shorts, without a shirt and shoes.
Building tenant Brenda Jorgensen, who has operated a thrift store in the bottom floor of the building for the past year, told the Herald-Press at the scene that she was allowing two men to live in the building and that both of them exited before the building was engulfed. One of the men called her to notify her of the fire.
Jorgensen was concerned two other individuals (one male, one female) may have been in the building, as she allowed them to spend the night there. However, the PFD could not confirm that report as of 10 a.m. Saturday.
Once the fire was extinguished, a search mission immediately commenced, with Texas Department of Criminal Justice personnel assisting in the efforts by bringing in canine units to search the area as of noon Saturday.
“While the structure at 119 E. Oak St. was a total loss, the fire was contained to that building and surrounding structures sustained only minimal damage from heat exposure,” Jackson said during the news conference.
Taking the brunt of the residual damage was the historic Ivanhoe building, which was already severely damaged when the building collapsed in late 2011.
“The Ivanhoe received moderate damage due to its close proximity,” Jackson said.
The East Texas Physicians Alliance Building located across the street to the south of the building received minor damage — its window glass had blown out — due to the heat exposure.
Other nearby structures — Kenderdine Insurance Agency, the Federal Building and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church also sustained minor damage, Jackson said.
One of the older buildings behind the church also had water damage in the Parish Hall, according to church member Mary Kolstad.
Earlier Saturday morning, Palestine Fire Department firefighters were putting out hot spots and brought in heavy equipment to pull down the remaining walls of the historic three-story building located at 119 E. Oak St. in downtown Palestine.
The front wall of the building collapsed at 4:30 a.m., according to reports.
“We brought in a piece of heavy equipment to pull the walls down and out so it will make it safe for us to be in there,” Jackson said.
The building is currently owned by Jason Dorsett. According to his mother, Cyndi Dorsett, who was at the scene of the fire, he did have insurance on the building and had finished renovations to put in lofts on one of the upper floors.
However, at the time of the fire, only the bottom floor was authorized to be used for the thrift store, as the upper floors were not ready to be occupied.
The fire is still under investigation, and the State Fire Marshal’s Office has been contacted to assist with the investigation.