Indianapolis Fire Department and the 1973 Grant Fire: “The finest moment this department ever had.”


Credit: Indianapolis Fire Fighter Museum, IPL Digital Collections

The first block of East Washington Street in downtown Indianapolis is lined on the northside by several older buildings housing a variety of businesses, apartments, and condominiums. The south side of the street is bookended by the Barnes and Thornburg building, at the intersection of Meridian and Washington, and what was originally known as the Kresge Building (history of that building here) at the corner of Washington and Pennsylvania.


In the middle of this block is a large gap, occupied by surface parking lots, which are bisected by Scioto Street, a narrow north-south alleyway. The history of this gap began nearly 50 years ago, on the morning of November 5, 1973. Where the parking lots are now was then occupied by the Grant Building, a large defunct department store and the Thomas building, which housed offices. By the end of the day, the Grant building was in ruins, the Thomas building was severely damaged, and the Indianapolis Fire Department ("IFD") had just completed fighting the largest fire in the history of the city.


The fire began in the Grant building just before 1 pm on November 5. The first call to IFD dispatch came in at 12:49, when a caller in the Thomas Building, across Scioto Street and to the west of the Grant Building, reported smoke coming from the fourth floor of the Grant. Within minutes of the first report, IFD dispatch was flooded with numerous calls reporting the fire. The Indianapolis Digital Collections, maintained by the Indianapolis Public Library, contains the recordings of these dispatch calls. The initial calls can be found here.

Grant fire Indianapolis Fire Department history
Indianapolis News, August 2, 1973

The Grant building’s namesake was a former owner called the W.T. Grant Co. The Grant Company was a nationwide chain of general merchandise stores, most often located in the downtown areas of urban centers. The downtown Indianapolis store had closed as the company attempted to adapt to the new suburban shopping center trend. This was unsuccessful, and in 1976 W.T. Grant went into bankruptcy. Rewinding three years to 1973, the Grant building in downtown Indianapolis was slated for demolition and as reported by the Indianapolis News on August 2, 1973, the land was to be used “temporarily” as a parking lot. The firm of Zebrowski & Associates had been retained to conduct the demolition.


In response to the initial call reporting the fire, and several more calls which quickly followed, IFD dispatch, then located at IFD headquarters at the corner of New York and Alabama Streets, directed two engines (numbers 7 and 13), a ladder truck (also called an aerial, number 7), and a division chief to respond to the report. This was the ‘still alarm’ response, meaning an alarm which was reported via a telephone call. Soon thereafter, a box alarm was issued which resulted in several additional apparatus (two more engines and two snorkels, along with a rescue squad) being routed to the fire. The diagram below was prepared by Nick Marco, as part of the investigation into the fire. It shows the positioning of the various apparatus on scene, along with information about damage to the downtown buildings.

Indianapolis Fire Department history Grant fire
Credit: Nick Marco, Indianapolis Fire Fighter Museum, IPL Digital Collections

A second alarm was called in short order at 12:53 pm, and four additional engine companies were called in, as was an additional aerial, and two hose tenders. A few minutes later, at 12:55 pm, another aerial, number 5, was called to the scene. Within 10 minutes, 17 apparatus were being directed to the stretch of Washington Street between Meridian and Pennsylvania. Upon arrival, firefighters found that the upper stories of the Grant Building were fully involved, and flames were threatening the 13 story Thomas Building to the west. IFD units attempted to prevent the spread, but the intense heat and the Thomas building's proximity to the Grant building allowed the fire to jump Scioto Street and gain access to the Thomas building through windows on the sixth floor. The Grant building was empty, but the Thomas building was occupied by the office space for a number of businesses and filled with employees.


As the fire spread throughout the Grant, the heat on Washington Street got so high that hoses run along the street began burn. The heat also began to damage surrounding structures. At 1:01 pm a third alarm was called, three additional engine companies were called to the scene, and the fire continued to expand. Recently appointed fire chief Donald Lamb arrived on scene and determined that an expanded elevated attack would be needed, and at 1:08 pm ordered IFD dispatch to "get every available aerial we got in here." That call can be heard on this dispatch recording at minute 1:59. Lamb is identified as "Car 1." The dispatcher responded that all aerials are on the way. At the time the IFD had four 100-foot aerials (extendable ladders) in service, along with three others at 75 and 85 feet. 75 foot and 85-foot snorkels (an aerial type of truck with an articulating boom with a basket on the end), and a 55-foot squirt (a type of truck similar to a snorkel but smaller) was also in use.


Occupants of nearby buildings were evacuated safely and joined many onlookers who had gathered on the streets to observe the fire. However, one person who was reported trapped on the 8th floor of the Thomas building. Shortly after 1 pm, IFD dispatch recorded a report of a person trapped in the Thomas building. According to a 1998 article in the Helmet, a newsletter for IFD, and a report in the Indianapolis News, the person was Edward McElfresh, an attorney who worked in the building for 40 years. Observers had spotted McElfresh waving a handkerchief from a window. Firefighter Dale Davis, and Indianapolis Police Detective Mike Grable took a portable ladder and attempted to rescue Mr. McElfresh from the roof the Kirk building, directly west of the Thomas building (today occupied by a Buffalo Wild Wings). The ladder was just a few feet short, and Mr. McElfresh had to grab at it through the smoke before he was pulled to safety.

Indianapolis history Grant Fire Indianapolis Fire Department
Onlookers observe the Grant fire from the entrance of Wasson's Dept. Store. Credit: Institute for Civic Leadership and Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis, Richard G. Lugar Collection, Img. 24

At 1:12 dispatch reported that the Director of the Board of Safety was sending a spotter to the 25th floor of the City County Building. This would turn into an emergency operations center of sorts, and the IFD spotter was John Minty, the chief for IFD District 2. The fire was less than 20 minutes old, and IFD was working to get things under control. Multiple calls for increased water pressure to the hoses feeding the aerials were passed through dispatch. One call from Aerial 15, stationed at Pennsylvania and Pearl Street, on the south end of the Federal Reserve Bank building (also known as the Kresge Building) requested that Engine 11, which was supplying water to the aerial, to increase water pressure by 10 pounds. Similar calls were made throughout the afternoon.

Indianapolis history fire department grant fire washington hotel
Washington Hotel as it appears today.

The situation on scene was fluid and based on the dispatch calls, at times little chaotic. Around 1:15 pm a call came in from dispatch reporting that a snorkel truck going south on Meridian Street towards the fire was dragging 50 feet of hose in the street behind it. The dispatcher's reply was a simple "Ah Christ, ok." Back on Washington Street, radiant heat from the fire in the Grant and Thomas building stretched across Washington Street and caused heat damage and fires to the structures on the northside of the street. At 1:22 Chief Minty, spotting in the City County Building, reported fire on the 16th floor of the Washington Hotel to the very busy dispatcher at the IFD headquarters, who responded with an "ah geez." A few minutes later an additional report came in from Minty that the "Washington Hotel getting in bad shape." Making matters more difficult, the Washington Hotel had no standpipe, a water pipe built into higher rise buildings which allows firefighters to connect hoses to connections on each floor. Water is pumped into a main connection at street level which then feeds the entire building. As a result, hoses had to be run all the way up the 17-story tower to attack the fires breaking out on its upper floors


Dispatch recordings indicate that a helicopter was arriving on scene around this time, as well as continued requests from the aerials and snorkels for increases in water pressure from engines pumping water from hydrants. Behind the Grant building and across Pearl Street was a parking garage and surface lot. Around 1:30 reports of fires at the parking garage were passed along to dispatch. Eventually, over 30 cars parked in these lots caught fire, and the Century Building, located at Maryland and Pennsylvania suffered damage from heat radiating from the fire.

Indianapolis Fire Department history Grant Fire Washington Street
Credit: Indianapolis Fire Fighter Museum, IPL Digital Collections

Firefighting efforts continued in the second half of the one o'clock hour, with numerous calls for additional water pressure being made to IFD dispatch. At 1:49 IFD dispatch received a call from an employee with Sipe Jewelry, located in the Merchants Bank building (now known as the Barnes and Thornburg building), warning IFD about the presence of two tanks, one of hydrogen, the other of oxygen, in their offices. The caller warned that if the tanks exploded, it would cause significant damage to the building. While the Merchants Bank building did sustain water damages it did not catch fire like its neighbors. Helping on this front were several steel workers, led by Jim Lanagan, who had been working on the nearby Indiana Bell Building. The workers ran to the scene and scaled the fire escape on the Merchants Building (which is still present on the southside of the building) and helped drag hoses to the top levels to allow firefighters to tap into the building's standpipe and create a high ground, well beyond the maximum reach of IFD"s aerials and snorkels, from which water was directed down onto the fire. Also, around this same time fire was reported to be breaking through the roof of the Washington Hotel. Firefighters fought the flames in the Washington floor by floor, while aerials on Washington Street directed water as high as they could from the outside.


During this time, a large number of IFD assets were dedicated to the Grant fire, leaving other areas of the city without fire protection. Units from the township departments stepped in to cover these areas during this time. At 2:03, a caller from the Wayne Township Fire Department called IFD dispatch asking if they needed to head downtown. Dispatch responded in the negative and asked that they continue to cover the empty IFD firehouses.

Indianapolis aerial image helicopter Grant Fire
Indianapolis News

At 2:15 the dispatch recording indicates the helicopter on station over the fire reported that the Thomas Building was engulfed in flames. The image above from the Indianapolis News was taken from atop the present-day Regions Bank Building and shows a helicopter hovering over the intersection of Pennsylvania and Washington Street. The Washington Hotel is the tall structure at center. The Grant building is mostly obscured by smoke and flames behind the Washington.


The image below is from the Richard Lugar Collection of the Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis and was taken by Dennis Bogden, photographer for the Indianapolis Department of Administration. Bogden took numerous photos of the fire throughout the day, some from ground level, others from vantage points on top of various downtown buildings. It isn't clear which building is depicted in this photo, although I suspect it was the Thomas building, as entry was not being made into the Grant building due to structural concerns of that structure.

Indianapolis history Indianapolis Fire Department Grant fire
Credit: Institute for Civic Leadership and Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis, Richard G. Lugar Collection, Img. 46

The fire fighters in the dispatch office at IFD headquarters continued their work juggling numerous communications. At one point around 2:15, an excited call come in from an engine on scene, and dispatch calmy asks the firefighter to "kindly lower your voice and peak a little lower when you are transmitting, please." Around this time, Chief Minty left his perch at the City County Building and boarded a helicopter to monitor the scene from above.


At 2:21 a report to dispatch indicated that that the parking facilities south of the Grant building along Maryland needed attention due to the spread of the fire. Shortly after this, warnings are issued about the stability of Grant building, and the risk of collapse to the personnel fighting the fire along Washington Street and behind the Grant building. One order was directed to Aerial 34, which was stationed on Pearl Street behind the Kirk building, to move back from their position due to the risk from the "pyre" that was the Thomas and Grant buildings. Around 2:30 IFD dispatch received a reminder that while attention was focused downtown, there were incidents elsewhere. A call about a garage fire at 3347 North New Jersey was received, and a unit not already committed downtown was directed to respond.

Indianapolis history Indianapolis Fire Department Grant fire Washington Street
View looking east on Washington Street, with two IFD aerials and two snorkels being used to direct water on the Thomas building (right) and the Washington Hotel and Richman Building (left). Credit: Indianapolis Fire Fighter Museum, IPL Digital Collections

By the middle of the afternoon, the fire was more or less coming under control. The Grant building had collapsed in on itself, and the facade had been partially collapsing onto Washington Street for the past few hours, while the interior continued to burn. A large crane set up for the demolition at the back of the Grant building succumbed to the estimated 2500-degree heat. The Thomas building was still standing, although most of the structure had eventually become involved, and the fire gutted the building. Firefighters moved floor to floor, attacking remaining hotspots and checking for any victims. The Merchants Bank Building (now known as the Barnes & Thornburg building) was west of the Thomas building, and would suffer relatively little damage, mostly limited to water damage from firefighting efforts being conducted on the Washington and Pearl Street sides of the building. It was still being used as a high ground, and at around 2:45 pm, dispatch directs Engine 17 to increase water pressure on the water being pumped into the standpipe on the Merchants Bank Building.


The Washington Hotel suffered over $400,000 in damage, with several floors severely damaged by the fire, and firefighters working floor by floor while dragging the firehoses up from ground level. The images below show the Washington Hotel following the fire on the left. Note the missing windows and fire damage on the top half of the building. The second image on the right is the remains of the front of the Grant building facing Washington Street near the end of the afternoon on November 5. Both of these images are from the Institute for Civic Leadership and Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis, Richard G. Lugar Collection, image numbers 44 and 2, respectively.


The Kirk Building, between the Merchants and Thomas building had suffered fire damage, but survived, and remains standing today, housing the downtown institution that is Buffalo Wild Wings. The Federal Reserve Bank building (a.k.a Kresge), to the east of the Grant survived and still stands. The Indianapolis News on November 6, 1973, attributed the building's survival to having been protected from the worse of the fire by a double brick firewall between it and the Grant building, and the constant flow of water being put over its roof by firefighters. The image below shows the Federal Reserve Bank building and the eastern wall of the Grant still standing next door. An aerial unit (likely No. 5) is directing water on the roof of the building, while a snorkel (No. 31) directs water onto the Grant. The News interviewed the bank's manager who indicated that the "huge" computer system which processed checks for the bank appeared to have escaped damage from water, as it had been covered in canvas tarps during the fire.


Credit: Institute for Civic Leadership and Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis, Richard G. Lugar Collection, Img. 34

At 10:15 pm, relief units came on scene to relieve the numerous firefighters who had been downtown for almost 10 hours. In some cases, the personnel left the scene while their apparatus worked on into the night. The crew of Engine 27 did just that and left their engine to continue pumping while they were relieved by Engine 2 personnel. That evening police encircled the site of the fire to prevent looting, while IFD relief units continued address hot spots and monitor the remains of the fire.


Despite the size of the fire and the number of buildings involved, there were no fatalities, and only a few injuries, including seven firefighters and a police officer. Injuries ranged from first degree burns to smoke inhalation. The fire had occurred in the middle of a weekday, and downtown had been full of workers and shoppers, many of whom lined sidewalks watching the efforts to fight the fire. Below is an image of the fire taken from the intersection of Pennsylvania and Washington Street, right across from the Roselyn Bakery on the northwest corner (now a Five Guys burger restaurant) with numerous onlookers present. At this point in the fire, the Grant building heavily involved, and the Thomas building with at least two floors already on fire. The Federal Reserve Building is at the left. The second image is the view from the same spot as it appears more recently.


The Indianapolis City County Council held a meeting the evening of November 5 and addressed the fire. A special resolution, titled No. 32, 1973, was considered by the counsel. It noted that "our city has this day suffered from the greatest fire in our history" and that the "life and welfare of our city must not be impaired by this catastrophe through neglect or inaction by government and local agencies...". The resolution called for the following and was approved by a voice vote with one abstaining.

Indianapolis history city council Grant Fire
Credit: Journal of proceedings of the City-County Council of Indianapolis-Marion County, 1973

Immediately suspicion for the fire was directed towards the Zebrowski Company, who had been hired to demolish the Grant building. Reports from individuals in buildings adjacent to the Grant reported seeing people using a cutting torch in the building just before the fire started. The Zebrowski company denied these claims and said that there were no workers on site at the time, as they were not scheduled to arrive onsite to work until the overnight hours. The manager of the First Federal Building was quoted by the News as calling the Grant Building a "regular tinder box" due to the remaining debris and old pine shelving still in the structure.


IFD and the state fire marshal launched an investigation into the fire, which continued for several months. The map showing a diagram of the fire site and IFD's response was prepared as part of this investigation. As noted on diagram of the fire scene by Nick Marco, 1333 hours were spent fighting the fire, with 139 on-duty, and 79 off duty firefighters assisting in effort to fight the fire. 1180 hours were spent by IFD on the site of the fire investigating. Also, in the aftermath of the fire, Chief Lamb issued letters of thanks to the various volunteer departments (an example is pictured below) who had covered for IFD while greater than 50% of the department was tasked with fighting the Grant fire.

Indianapolis history Indianapolis fire department
Credit: Institute for Civic Leadership and Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis, Richard G. Lugar Collection

Multiple lawsuits were filed as a result of the fire, the first filed the day after the fire by an insurance company which had occupied the now destroyed Thomas Building, and eventually became a class action suit in early January 1974, joined by other parties damaged as a result of the fire. $250 million in damages was claimed, with the defendants being the city of Indianapolis, Indianapolis Fire Department, Indiana National Bank (the trustee of the Grant Building property, Thomas Grant, and Edward Zebrowski, and his demolition firm. Other cases would be filed later by other parties The pending litigation appears to have delayed the official investigating report on the cause of the fire. IFD Chief Donald Lamb and State Fire Marshall William Goodwin had previously stated that the fire was an accident, and not arson related. However, in regard to the official report, on January 25, 1974, the Indianapolis Star quoted Chief Lamb stating that "I feel as though I would be remiss in my duties as fire chief in making any kind of a statement on the origin of the Grant fire as long as we are involved in litigation." City legal counsel, Gary Landau, also told the Star that he was concerned that "prejudicial publicity" associated with the report would impact the outcome of the litigation, and no report would be issued without a court order.


In addition to the litigation, the fire resulted in the damage and loss of numerous businesses. Hardest hit was the Thomas building, which had housed offices for insurance companies, law firms, and the Indiana Art Commission. The day after the fire, the Art Commission's executive director, John Bitterman, issued a letter to organizations who had received grants from the Commission, asking that these groups provide copies of all materials related to the grants because "all record and files were consumed in the flames," which had engulfed the Thomas building. That letter, maintain in the Mayoral Archives, can be viewed here.


The litigation process stretched on for another 7 years, before some of the claims began to go to trial (others were resolved outside of court). One claim filed by General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Company, who insured the Thomas building, and McCrory Corporation, a tenant in that building. The Defendants were Indun Realty, who had owned the Grant property, its parent company Indiana National Bank, Indiana National Corporation, and Zebrowski & Associates. In an Indianapolis Star article on July 9, 1980, reporter Laurie Jensen reported that a jury ruled that the owners of the Grant building and the demolition firm were not liable for damages resulting from the fire. The allegations centered around who was responsible for security at the site and whether sufficient precautions had been taken.


Earlier during the trial, Frank P. Thomas, the owner of the Thomas Building, in testimony which News reporter described as "startling" to the attorneys on the case, told the court that the day before the fire he had been on Pearl Street, behind the Grant building, moving furniture and observed people using a cutting torch inside the Grant building. When asked why he had not brought this up before, Thomas explained that essentially, he was never asked about what he had seen, as he was never interviewed by the fire marshal. Counsel for the Plaintiffs also told the jury that the IFD's arson division had determined that the fire had a human cause and was not an accident. However, as noted above, in 1974, investigators had determined that the fire was not arson, and Chief Lamb had reported that it was an accident. In the end, the exact cause of the fire was never determined with any finality. The fire remains one of the largest fires fought by IFD. At the ten-year anniversary of the fire in 1983, the Indianapolis Star noted that IFD veterans called the fighting of the Grant fire "the finest moment this department ever had." Another unidentified firefighter was quoted as saying that "it was a helluva stop. It was a helluva fire."


The burned-out Thomas building was unsalvageable, the heart from the fire having damaged the internal structure and it was demolished in February 1974. After the debris was removed, the lots where it and the Grant building had stood were turned to parking lots. While initially supposed to be a "temporary" lot at the site of the Grant, both lots are nearing 50 years of service. I am unsure whether any redevelopment plans have ever been proposed, or are pending, for this site.


Note the mural on the right side of this image, depicting Major Taylor a world champion black cyclist from the early 1900's. This mural recently replaced a mural titled "The Runners," painted in 1974 on the east side of the Kirk Building, following the removal of the debris from the adjacent Thomas building. The mural was designed by James McQuiston, and was part of the Urban Walls mural project, which funded three murals in the downtown area. The Runners remained in place until 2020, when repairs to the Kirk building required repairs to its exterior. These repairs, combined with the lack of maintenance of the mural over the years resulted in it being replaced by a new mural honoring Major Taylor in 2020. A display the site of the Thomas building describes the history of the Runners mural, and Major Taylor, and are pictured below.





Sources


Special Note: Many images for this blog came from the Indianapolis Fire Department Museum digital collection at the Indianapolis Public Library and are credited above. The collection contains a massive amount of material, ranging from photos, to newsletters, to oral histories. That collection can be accessed at this link, while the webpage for the Indianapolis firefighting museum can be found here. If you want to just view the many images related to the Grant fire, check out this link.


Pictorial graph map of "Grant Fire", Nicholas Marco, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ffm/id/1517/rec/3


The Helmet, November 1998, Volume 69, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ffm/id/69534/rec/2


Materials from the Institute for Civic Leadership and Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis, Richard G. Lugar Collection, Box 110, "Buildings on Fire, Nov. 1973, https://uindy.historyit.com/container.php?id=112749 (All photos taken by Dennis Bogden, photographer for the Indianapolis Department of Administration)

  • Downtown Fire, Img. 46

  • Downtown Fire, Img. 33

  • Downtown Fire, Img. 24

  • Downtown Fire, Img. 2

  • Indianapolis Fire Department Annual Report 1973

Indianapolis News: November 5, 1973. November 6, 1973, February 18, 1974, January 8, 1975, March 5, 1976, June 24, 1980, September 10, 1984, April 9, 1991


Indianapolis Star: November 7, 1973, January 25, 1974. February 23, 1974, July 9, 1980, November 5, 1983


Journal of proceedings of the City-County Council of Indianapolis-Marion County, 1973, https://archive.org/details/journalofproceed1973indi/page/n893/mode/2up?q=Grant



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