Looking for answers: Fire destroys downtown commercial buildings, structures could collapse


Columbus firefighters and the state fire marshal’s office are investigating a late Saturday night fire in the 400 block of Fifth Street in downtown Columbus, looking for where the fire started in the three-story commercial building and a possible cause.

The iconic building, believed to date back to the early 1900s and known for its series of charming bay windows across two of the stories, was expected to be a total loss, with charred debris falling into the first floor and spilling out on to the sidewalk. It contained leased office space and photo studios and was not used for residential purposes, firefighters said.

The investigation began with caution on Sunday, as firefighters warned that 440 Fifth St. and 422 Fifth St. were dangerously unstable after building collapses at the front and rear of the structure after the fire was reported at 11:50 p.m. Saturday. Water poured on the building for hours had added weight that the precarious building might not be able to sustain, firefighters said.

Investigators are also looking for signs of where the fire started, and believe they may have an important clue in the form of a photo from a Columbus police officer who arrived before firefighters, showing a section of the 440 Fifth St. building on fire, and where firefighters were first sent when responding.

About 40 firefighters, those on duty and as many as six more called in to assist, worked at the scene from late Saturday night through daybreak Sunday morning, in frigid temperatures that dipped to the mid-20s overnight with wind chills in the teens. All six Columbus fire engines responded to the fire, assisted by Seymour and Hope firefighters and their fire trucks.

Several county fire departments covered 911 calls within the city due to the manpower needed on Fifth Street from late Saturday night through mid-day Sunday.

Capt. Mike Wilson, Columbus Fire Department spokesman, said a passerby initially discovered flames in the building just before midnight and called 911. When firefighters arrived, they found a well-involved fire at the rear of 440 Fifth St., and soon, a portion of a single story structure at that location collapsed.

A Columbus firefighter was injured jumping out of the way of one of two building collapses during the incident and was treated at the scene. Two other firefighters were later injured while falling on the ice-covered street at the fire scene, and were also treated at the scene.

As additional firefighters arrived, firefighters determined that the fire had spread to the rear of 422 Fifth St., Wilson said.

Firefighters entered 422 Fifth St. to search for occupants and encountered high heat and heavy smoke conditions. As firefighters entered one of the businesses inside the building, they located a cat who promptly ran from the building after firefighters forced entry into the office space, Wilson said.

As crews searched the interior of 422 Fifth St., conditions within the interior deteriorated rapidly, Wilson said. With an increase in visible fire viewed from the exterior and changing smoke conditions, the on-scene command ordered all firefighters out of the buildings to work from the outside. Firefighters used both hand line fire hoses and elevated water streams from aerial ladder trucks to fight the fire.

As more water was poured on to the building, water pooled at Fifth and Washington Streets and was several inches deep flowing west down Fifth Street.

Firefighters were continuing efforts to put out the fire when a large portion of the third story façade of 422 Fifth St. collapsed on to the sidewalk and street, narrowly missing firefighters below, Wilson said.

A large amount of brick and wood debris landed on the aerial ladder of Columbus Fire Engine 2, which was directing a water stream into upper floor windows. Firefighters returned the ladder to street level and removed bricks and building materials. No firefighters were on the ladder at the time of the collapse. Because of the damage, Engine 2 was removed from the scene.

Wilson said after repairs, the engine must be tested and recertified, and until that is completed, backup equipment will be used in its place.

It took about four hours to get the fire under control, Wilson said. During that time, Mary Ferdon, city executive director of administration and community development, and Jamie Brinegar, city director of business services, were at the scene working with firefighters and business representatives to assist. Ferdon worked with owners of Realty One offices at 436 Washington St., nearby to provide for a shelter for firefighters and police officers needing assistance, food or a place to get warm. Restroom facilities and coffee were available. Several CPD officers blocked intersections around Fifth Street for hours as the firefighters continued to work. The Salvation Army also provided assistance and Columbus Regional Hospital Ambulance also responded to the scene to assist anyone injured.

Utility officials shut off power to a portion of the downtown area as another precaution, and the lines quickly became encased in ice at the scene. Power was restored to all but the block affected by the fire by Sunday morning.

The initial search of the buildings indicated that both buildings were unoccupied when the fire started, Wilson said. According to property management, both 422 and 440 Fifth St. are commercial office buildings with no residential occupancy.

The buildings house several businesses including The Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, Bailey and Wood Financial Group, Arnholt and Staggs Law Office and TD Advertising. Property management representatives shared with fire investigators that additional businesses lease space within both buildings, including photo studios.

Fifth Street will remain closed to traffic between Washington Street and Franklin Street for an undetermined period of time, Wilson said.

Ferdon had already asked Columbus Department of Public Works to assist with cleanup of the debris on the sidewalks and streets and to salt the streets affected by water, and a salt truck was on the scene at about 5 a.m. Sunday. Conditions around Fifth Street in downtown remained slippery for most of the morning however, as water continued to dissipate from the firefighting efforts. Much of the debris remained in place Sunday morning as the investigation continued.

Wilson said investigators will continue to monitor the stability of the building, and that those who have offices or belongings in the structures will not be able to enter the buildings at this time. Firefighters believe the two Fifth Street buildings are a total loss, with the chamber building to the east suffering water and smoke damage.

Agencies that assisted at the scene include the Columbus Police Department, Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Office, Columbus City Utilities, Center Point Energy, Duke Energy, Bartholomew County 911 Emergency Operations Dispatch Center, Bartholomew County Emergency Management, City Of Columbus Department of Public Works and the Salvation Army.

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