By CHERIL VERNON
As of noon Saturday, Texas Department of Criminal Justice K-9 search and rescue units were assisting the Palestine Fire Department and other officials search for possible human remains among the ruins of the historic three-story building which was destroyed by a massive structure fire that started shortly after midnight Saturday.
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.
“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,” PFD Lt. Devin Jackson said during a news conference held at the PFD Fire Station 1 Saturday morning.
Reports of individuals inside the building at the time of the fire were still unconfirmed as of this morning.
Jackson did, however, say 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, appeared “devastated” while at the scene of the fire.
“I’m not worried about anything else but whether or not everybody got out,” Jorgensen told the Herald-Press. “I’m sick at my stomach over this.”
Jorgensen told the Herald-Press 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.
The front wall of the building collapsed about 4:30 a.m., Jackson said.
The fire is under investigation and units continue to be on the scene since the fire as of 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The State Fire Marshal’s Office has been contacted to assist with the investigation.
“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.
The following streets will be closed indefinitely until reevaluated for the safety of the situation: East Oak Street from Avenue A to Sycamore Street and Houston Street from Avenue A to Crawford Street.
The Palestine Police Department dispatch received the 911 call reporting the structure fire at 12:15 a.m. Saturday at 119 W. Oak St. At that time, the Palestine Fire Department dispatched three engines and a command vehicle.
Upon arrival — approximately 1/8 of a mile from PFD’s Fire Station 1 — firefighters reported heavy fire in the rear of the building.
“Within minutes of being on the scene, the structure had the first of several collapses and a defensive strategy was employed to protect exposure (other buildings) and personnel on the scene,” Jackson told the Herald-Press.
A handful of nearby structures sustained minor to moderate damage from the fire. 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, Jackson said.
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.
“The defensive strategy put in place by the fire department kept damage to nearby structures at a minimum,” interim City of Palestine Manager Wendy Ellis told the Herald-Press during Saturday’s press conference. “I am proud of the Palestine Fire Department’s work and efforts in protecting the surrounding structures and we appreciate the other first responders who responded at the scene battling the blaze and assisting our guys.”
Two PFD firefighters were treated at the scene for heat-related injuries.
“Two other firefighters cooled off and were given water but they did not require medical treatment,” Jackson said.
All available off-duty personnel from the department were called in to assist with the fire. Area volunteer fire departments also assisted, including Slocum, 84 East, Neches, Westside, Montalba, Elmwood and Elkhart. Jacksonville Fire Department brought over a ladder truck to help extinguish the fire because PFD’s Tower One ladder truck is currently being repaired.
Other agencies assisting with the fire were Palestine Regional Medical Center EMS, City of Palestine public Works, Palestine Police Department, East Texas Medical Center EMS and the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office.
The building, built in the early 1900s for retail space, was first utilized as a furniture store and mortuary. Over the years it has been various businesses including a bakery and Goodwill, but most people in the community know it as the “Pittman Graphics” building.
“My mom, Linda Pittman, opened Pittman Graphics in 1994 or 1995,” former building owner Michael Lucius told the Herald-Press while firefighters battled the blaze.
In 2003, he began helping his mother with the business until she passed away in 2007.
“The building was given to me and I sold it last year,” Lucius said. “It’s a loss to Palestine, another historic building lost that cannot be replaced. To me personally, I’ve stopped by the building many times because it brought back good memories. I can still see my mom and me standing at the counter. It’s like losing my mom all over again.”
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.