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Sullivan family remembers downtown holiday fire

December 22, 2011

By STEVEN NALLEY
citybeat@bellsouth.net

If you ask Carolyn Sullivan or Steve Langston about the days leading up to Christmas 1989, they will tell you, with a smile, it was no holiday.
“I tell you, it was a sick day,” Langston, co-owner of Sullivan’s Office Supply, said. “I just about thought the world had ended. It didn’t seem like it that day, but in the long run, it turned out to be a good thing for our company.”
Dec. 23 marks the 22nd anniversary of a fire at Sullivan’s Office Supply which extensively damaged the store and adjacent properties.
As disastrous as it was, Carolyn Sullivan, co-owner of the store, said it could have been worse if not for a thick brick fire wall on the property’s south end. This fire wall is still intact, she said, and it can be seen at the back of the store’s show room.
“The way the wind was blowing,” Sullivan said, “it would have burned the whole (block).”
Langston said the wind was blowing south at about 20 mph that Saturday.
“It was about 5 degrees,” Langston said. “It had been zero degrees the day or so before. It was blowing so hard out of the north. As a matter of fact, there were people — private individuals — putting out little fires on down in Van Landingham’s lot.”
Kirk Rosenhan, Oktibbeha County Fire Services coordinator, was among the many firefighters at the scene that day, and he said it was so cold he was freezing even as he manned the deck pipe, spraying water from within a few yards of the blaze.
“It worked out as well as it could have worked out because that building had a long and storied history,” Rosenhan said. “It was a car dealership, it was a store, it was the naval armory reserve meeting place (and) it was a cafeteria.”
Langston said the Sullivan family had just bought the property currently housing the show room 10 months before the fire.
Sullivan said she smelled gas in the building on Thursday, Dec. 20. A new gas heater had been recently installed, she said, but the gas company’s representatives were unable to find a leak.
To this day, Langston said, no one has officially determined the fire’s cause.
“We’re not trying to blame anybody,” Langston said. “They brought in experts after the thing was completely extinguished the next day. They filmed and they examined, (but) they never could determine what truly caused it.”
Sullivan said one of her friends, Donna Kittrell, had been showcasing furniture at the store a few minutes before the fire started.
“My husband and I ... we were eating lunch,” Sullivan said. “Somehow, the building just exploded.”
Sullivan said she and her husband escaped from the building in different directions. Meanwhile, Langston said, he was traveling with friends to go hunting when he saw smoke from about two miles away and knew it had to be downtown. When he arrived at the building and entered at the front, he said, the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.
Two hours later, Langston said, the fire had fully developed. Brick walls to the west and east of the building collapsed, falling on adjacent buildings and causing damage to property owned by several tenants, including City Finance, the United Way, Dawgs’ Byte and an electronics repair company.
“Fortunately, it was the Saturday before Christmas on Monday,” Langston said, “and nobody was at work.”
Sullivan said it was Wesley Jones, owner of Jones Shoe Shop, who called the fire department.
“We had a fire alarm, but it didn’t go off till the fire department was already here,” Sullivan said. “Mr. Jones called the fire department, and then our fire alarm went off.”
Langston said firefighters from as far away as Columbus were called in.
“They got about halfway here, and by the end they said, ‘We don’t need you,’ but they actually called them,” Langston said.
Rosenhan said fire trucks from across the county came to fight the fire.
“We thought for a while there we were going to lose the whole block,” Rosenhan said. “At that point in time, most of the volunteer fire departments (currently) in the county didn’t exist.”
Sullivan said others in the vicinity were quick to offer aid in the aftermath, including Starkville Cafe and First Baptist Church. Langston said it took a month or two before work began on rebuilding the property, and the store held an open house for its grand re-opening on Nov. 28, 1990.

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