Fire Chief Mark Whiteside reminisces about dramatic fire at Van Atkins building

NEMiss.News Van Atkins fire still billowing morning of 1-22-2001
Morning after view from Main Street Photo courtesy NAFD
January 23rd, 2022     Featured News History

Editor’s Note:  New Albany Fire Chief Mark Whiteside recalls dramatic details about a fire 21 years ago. National Weather Service records say the temperature was 22-24 degrees F in downtown New Albany when the alarm sounded. The fire had the potential for serious injuries or death for firemen and further destruction downtown. Lessons were learned and practices implemented that make commercial buildings here safer today.

By: Mark Whiteside

Timing is everything. On January 21, 2001, 21 years ago Friday, we were turned out to a general alarm at 2:13 am for reports of a fire at 124 West Bankhead street, which was the Van Atkins Department Store.

First arriving crews reported fire coming from the structure. When I was coming in from the west, I saw fire from the second story back corner. This was the real deal, we were facing a long night, and the radio traffic said, “send help”. The question was asked “Who do you want?” The next statement was, “Everybody, the National Guard if we can get them.” The following explains how timing is the key.

Several of us were putting our airpacks on to go in and fight the fire, when something happened and sent several us to the ground in confusion. A collapse? Some type of explosion? I don’t remember anymore. Bricks all around us, a display case in the street, glass across Bankhead St. cracked, power knocked out in some places in town, and all of us safe. If the fire had happened 3 minutes later, if we had gotten there 3 minutes earlier, we would have been inside, or up the rear exterior stairs. We only speculate what the outcome would have been, but we are thankful we did not have to see what it would have been. We believe we probably would not be here today though.

Not many of us around New Albany Fire Department anymore that went through that night;  some working here now were not even born yet. A downtown fire can be devastating; several over the years — the Rainey, Van Atkins, and more before them. We could have lost so much more that night. We know that. A small alley, a brick wall, kept it from spreading. Left in the rubble, we found what has turned out to be a beautiful mural on the side of a brick wall, and now we have a wonderful park named Cooper Park. We still miss that big old building. Memories of shopping there, our model railroad club upstairs, and a night many of us shared and fought side by side.

No ladder truck back then. We have more equipment now, more tools at our fingertips, But the bottom line with these old buildings is early detection systems, sprinklers, and following codes we now have in place. They could quite possibly mean the difference of fire damage instead of complete loss of our downtown and/or loss of life.

We have, on more than one occasion, pointed to that park and told someone, “That park is why we enforce codes and request fire alarms and automatic fire suppression systems (sprinklers in buildings)”.

I could write more, give more details, more stories of that night, but let the pictures speak also.

The pictured commemorative knife was given to all firefighters on the scene that night.

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