By CHERIL VERNON and MARY RAINWATER
Palestine firefighters worked throughout the night to extinguish a massive fire that consumed a historic three-story building in downtown Palestine early Saturday morning.
As of 5 a.m. Saturday, fire crews remained at the scene. Fire officials were concerned that the front wall of the building was unstable and feared it might collapse at any moment.
Reports of individuals inside the building at the time of the fire were unconfirmed as of presstime early Saturday morning.
“The fire is under investigation at this time. The structure is unstable and too hot to enter,” Palestine Fire Department Lt. Devin Jackson told the Herald-Press.
Jackson did, however, say 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 Family Gardens thrift store in the bottom floor of the building for the past year, was 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 that she was allowing two men to reside 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 that two other individuals could have been in the building, as she allowed them to spend the night there.
However, the PFD could not confirm that report.
“We cannot do a search at this time due to the structure being unstable. We will investigate that in the daylight,” Jackson said.
A press conference is planned Saturday to release further details as they become available.
The Palestine Police Department dispatch received the 911 call reporting the structure fire at 12:15 a.m. Saturday at 119 E. 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.
Four PFD firefighters were treated for heat-related injuries on the scene.
“There have been no severe or life-threatening injuries to first responders,” Jackson said.
All available off duty personnel from the City of Palestine Fire 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.
Only one nearby structure sustained damage during the fire — the historic Ivanhoe building located on the east side of the building. The Ivanhoe building was severely damaged in late 2011 when the building collapsed.
“Kenderdine Insurance Agency might have sustained damage during one of the collapses, but I can’t confirm that at this time,” Jackson said.
The PFD will be on the scene throughout the day to monitor the situation and investigate the fire.
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.