By MARY RAINWATER and CHERIL VERNON
The Palestine Fire Department is still investigating the early morning fire that killed two people and destroyed a 100-plus year-old building in downtown Palestine Saturday.
City of Palestine officials reported the discovery of two victims at the scene on Saturday afternoon.
“At approximately 4 p.m. two victims were located at the scene,” Palestine’s interim city manager Wendy Ellis reported in a media release Saturday. “At this time a positive identification of the victims has not been made. They were taken to the coroner’s office for autopsy.”
As of Monday, all that was left of the building was a pile of bricks, metal and rubble roped off with police tape on the lot. No updates on the fire investigation were offered by city officials Monday.
Just after midnight Saturday, 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.
At the time, 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.
Once the fire was extinguished, a search mission immediately commenced Saturday morning, with Texas Department of Criminal Justice personnel assisting in the efforts by bringing in canine units to search the area.
“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 and its proximity.
Other nearby structures — Kenderdine Insurance Agency, the Federal Building and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church also sustained minor damage, Jackson said.
One of St. Philip’s older buildings in the back of the church suffered water damage, according to church member Mary Kolstad.
The building that burned down was 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 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 Saturday.
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.”
Palestine Fire Chief Alan Wilcher is overseeing the investigation, with the State Fire Marshal’s Office assisting.