Monday, 19 January 2009


Firefighters coated in ice battled sub-zero wind chills early yesterday, as they fought to control two major fires that started within an hour of each other in Louisville.
Icicles hung from the shattered, once-ornate church window that adorns the Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church, which suffered severe damage from a fire that was reported about 3 a.m. Much of the church was gutted.
Several miles away, just after 4 a.m. on Bardstown Road in the Highlands, fire tore through the Café Mimosa restaurant, destroying the building. Ice coated the restaurant's sign, as well as nearby power lines.
Though the cold temperatures and slippery conditions made it challenging to keep firefighters safe, there were no major injuries, said Louisville Fire Chief Greg Frederick.
One firefighter was hurt slightly when a brick fell on him at the Portland fire, and another was examined by EMS workers at the Bardstown Road fire, likely suffering from dehydration, Frederick said.
Both fires are under investigation by the arson squad, as is routine, and no official cause has been determined in either fire.
Henry Ott, Louisville Fire & Rescue's lead arson investigator, said the church fire likely started in the basement's southwest corner, while the restaurant fire started in trash bins located in the rear of the building.
Having two intense fires at the same time prompted the department to call in both shifts of off-duty firefighters, Frederick said, noting that when the number of fires escalates, "it does tax our resources."
About 75 firefighters responded to the church with about 15 engines and trucks. Another 45 firefighters were sent to the scene of the restaurant fire, with about eight engines and trucks.
Hard-fought efforts
The challenge of fighting the fires at about the same time was exacerbated by the morning's frigid temperatures, which created trouble with some hoses and caused some fire hydrants to freeze.
While temperatures at 4 a.m. hovered at about zero, wind chills dropped to 14 degrees below zero, said Nathan Foster, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Two hydrants near the Portland fire were frozen, and firefighters had to use torches to heat them enough to get water, Frederick said, but that didn't hinder firefighters in extinguishing the blaze because other hydrants nearby were working.
But sheets of ice covered the helmets and gear of firefighters as they battled hot spots at both fires for hours after they were initially reported. A TARC bus, ambulances and a fire department rehabilitation unit were used to give firefighters a place to rest and escape the cold.
About 1,000 LG&E customers in the area of the Bardstown Road fire were without power because of the blaze. Everyone, including four schools in the area, had power restored by about 11 a.m., a company spokeswoman said.

Facing the devastation
Phat Le, who bought Café Mimosa and the Egg Roll Machine restaurant 12 years ago, said he got a call about 4:30 a.m. yesterday telling him to turn on the television because his restaurant was on fire.
But he said that he started shaking so badly he could not move and waited several minutes to see the video coverage.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I didn't even want to see it because it broke my heart."
Le said that he has received many calls from loyal customers offering him support, which has made him "so happy" even in the face of his great loss.
He said he wants neighbors to know that he hopes to be able to rebuild the restaurant quickly.
Dr. Marie Gagnon, a veterinarian at the Fairleigh Pet Center next to the restaurant, said she is "devastated" for Le.
There were about 10 cats and dogs staying overnight at the clinic, but they were all taken out safely and suffered no ill effects from the fire, she said. The clinic did have some water damage but hopes to reopen no later than Monday, she said.
"We're very, very grateful to the firefighters," she said, because of their work to keep the fire from spreading. "We're just really, really lucky here."
Willa Fae Williams, pastor of the Portland church, said she got to the scene quickly enough to watch her beloved church burn.
As firefighters battled the blaze, church members came to the scene, gathering to comfort each other, crying and praying together.
"We don't believe the building is the church, the church is its people," Williams said. "We have no doubt that God has something good in mind and we'll wait and see what it is."
The church was built in 1928, housing a congregation that had been active since the 1890s. It provided a clothes closet and food pantry for needy people in the area.
Williams said yesterday that no plans for alternate worship locations had yet been made, although other churches have called to offer assistance.
Craig Eschman and his fiancée, Sarah Willis, stood outside the church early yesterday; they said they had been attending services there for about a year.
"It's really devastating," Willis said.