Interview with Jim Baker, Lowell Volunteer Fireman
February - March 2000
Jim Baker responded with the Lowell Volunteer Fire Department that morning. Over the course of two Saturday afternoons I spoke with Jim about his part in the fire fighting. Originally I requested Jim to write down his recollections of the fire, but he was reluctant. Instead, he answered many of my questions concerning the wreck and fire. Lacking a stenographer, Jim, I hope I put it down as close to how you related the story to me.
Q: At the time of the accident, can you remember exactly where you were?
A. "Well, at that time we were living in the apartments across the street from the town library. You would probably remember it as the Town Hall. Right next to the Three Creeks War Monument. About three blocks or so from the crossing."
Q: As a volunteer, how did you arrive at the scene of the wreck? Did you arrive on a fire engine, or personal vehicle?
A. "When the siren went off it woke me up. I can't remember what the exact time was, but it was early morning, but I can't recall the exact time. Living a short distance from the Fire Station, I went right down the hill to the station. I rode on one of our pumpers, but I really don't recall which one. Lowell only had two pumpers at the time and a water wagon. They call them tankers today. I really don't recall if you could see the fire from our apartment. When we left the station, I seem to recall the sky towards downtown lit up, but to be completely honest, I'm not really sure of it."
Q: On seeing the scene, what do you recall?
A. "When we left the fire station, we had to head south. Then west on Commercial Avenue. Commercial Avenue curves to the left as you get close to the tracks. As we came down the street I remember seeing the flames. Some people have described the fire as a wall of flames. I really can't remember how high, or far the fire was when we first arrived. I do recall the burning alcohol running in the gutters towards downtown. When the alcohol entered the sewers, several man hole covers were blown into the air. It scared people, who probably thought these explosions were more tank cars exploding, or getting ready to explode.
We hooked up to a fire hydrant and started fighting the fire. I believe we were able to get hooked onto the hydrant at the wye, but I could be wrong. The scene was pretty well lit up by the burning alcohol and the cars stacked one on top of another and the demolished and burning depot was pretty overwhelming. Naturally, we could only speculate on what was going on west of the crossing. All of our fire trucks and men lived on the east side. We hoped someone had the brains to call other departments. There were two service stations next to the crossing. Nobody knew if they were burning or not. Many people later said that the intense heat blew out windows in Hardings and the Mobile station. For a while, people were afraid we might loose the downtown. I never thought that the town was in that much danger, but the potential was there. Besides the depot and the mess left by the freight cars, I don't recall the damage being that bad. Broken windows, maybe some peeled paint due to the heat. The Legion building wasn't damaged, unless you count the molasses , fuel oil and canned meat that littered the parking lot and grounds. I know Hepp's Tavern was undamaged, same for the beauty shop. Considering the path of the burning alcohol, I'm sort of surprised neither were not touched.
Q: You stayed on the scene all through the morning. At first daylight, what were your first impressions of what it looked like?
A: "Besides being dog tired, I was really shocked at the site of all the freight cars piled up where the depot used to be. That was pretty impressive. The two tanks cars that the majority of the alcohol leaked from sat in the crossing all charred. I remember it was a little foggy that morning. The fog and smoke made for an eerie scene."
Q: Can you remember exactly when you were relieved from the fire.
A: "The department remained on the scene for a day or two. I remember leaving the scene in the morning to go to work. I worked at the Sinclair station and after opening up, I returned to the fire scene. We had many spot fires throughout the morning. I remember the railroad sending down men and equipment to start clearing the mess while we were still extinguishing fires. I recall members of the department being there one or two days."
Q: Any lasting memories? What was it like fighting a fire like that?
A: "One thing that to this day I will never forget is the scene of all the burnt, twisted freight cars stacked one on top of another. It was just unreal. Where the old depot once stood was now a smoldering foundation. Another lasting memory, the heat of the fire. You must remember, in those days we didn't have the flame retardant fire clothing they have these days. We had rubber hip boots and rubberized fire coats. Get to close and they became rather warm, very quickly. I was a nozzle man, so I was sitting on the end of the hose, with only a stream of water between me and the blaze. Yes, at first it was hot. Putting water on alcohol is no way to extinguish it. Once the Gary Fire Department unit arrived with foamite, we started making headway. One other memory, the smell of the meat that was taken to the town dump, now a park. It was the land across from where the post office is. Behind what was Lowell Elevator. It stunk up the town for months. Even had to go extinguish some fires there. It smelled terrible over there."
Q: Was the scene a mess?
A: "Well, not a mess in so many words. Yes, there were freight cars piled four high and the Legion grounds and parking lot was littered with canned meat, fuel oil and molasses. The smell of those three mixed together wasn't pleasant. Most of the spoiled meat were buried in the town dump, over behind the elevator.
Photo from Lowell Centennial book. Photo believed to have been taken by Jim Baker
Special thanks to Mrs. Harold Snyder, Lowell, Indiana for use of the 1952 Centennial Book.
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