Officials: Safety primary concern on Front Street
Firefighters spent much of Monday continuing to fight fires at the downtown buildings which began burning on Sunday.
According to Fire Chief Johnny Ruffin, firefighters were called back to Front Street Monday afternoon after fires flared up inside the buildings.
“We had to respond again yesterday afternoon after we had a few flare ups inside of the building. That’s when we put the monitors out and left them on until this morning trying to keep water on it as much as we could,” said Ruffin. “I went by there about 7:50 this morning and took a look at everything and asked them to go ahead and turn the water off.”
Ruffin said firefighters spent more than 16 hours with the fire before returning to the station yesterday morning and then being called back out.
“Those guys were out there for 16 hours and no one had any sleep or much rest. Everyone is tired and just worn out right now, but we still have a job to do, and we went back out when it started flaring up again. Now we have some smoke from the building on the east side that collapsed and we’re not really worried about that one because it is already down. We’re just trying to keep an eye on everything,” said Ruffin.
Forrest City Mayor Larry Bryant thanked all of the area fire departments that assisted with the blaze and said now the priority is making sure the area is kept safe.
“First, I want to thank all of the firefighters for the job they did, and I want to thank all of the firefighters from the surrounding departments who came in and helped. This is probably the biggest fire we’ve seen in downtown Forrest City. We had the one on Hill Street years ago, but all of these buildings were two-story buildings which makes a difference,” said Bryant.
“Now we’re in the process of contacting the owners to determine whether they have insurance and what their next course of action will be. In today’s times you have to be careful because people will sue over anything. We’ve talked to one party already and they have insurance and debris removal and are taking actions to secure what they can from their offices. The process of removing that building could start within the next two to three hours, once they receive the okay,” said Bryant.
Bryant confirmed that officials with Sharpe, Beavers, Cline and Wright were removing items from their offices at 117 S. Washington Street this morning. According to officials with the St. Francis County Assessor’s office, the building at 117 S. Washington is owned by SBC of Forrest City, and the buildings at 101 through 105 Front Street are owned by Dr. Xavier Haymer. The buildings at 509 through 511 Front Street, which is where the fires are suspected to have started, are owned by New G, a West Memphis-based property owner. There was no listing for a New G in the telephone book, and attempts were made to contact Haymer this morning but he had not returned phone calls as of press time.
The condition of the buildings have led to the closing of a portion of Hwy. 1 and that area will remain closed until officials can assess the damages and determine the stability of the remaining walls.
“That area is closed off to the public right now for safety reasons, and we’ve spoken with Ray Woodruff with the Highway Department. He let us know that we did the right thing by closing the street and we have the green light to keep it closed until something is done to make that area secure to through traffic. One thing none of us want is someone getting hurt or killed because we opened the road too soon and the walls collapsed on someone’s vehicle. The other part of it is once the walls are down, removing all of the debris,” said Bryant.
Woodruff also said safety is a priority.
“This isn’t a situation where the highway can just remain closed indefinitely, but we also have to take public safety into consideration. We don’t want someone walking through that area or driving through get injured or worse from falling debris. Right now it’s just too soon to say when the highway will reopen,” said Woodruff.
Walking through the area is something that the Forrest City Police Department and St. Francis County Sheriff’s Department are working to stop. According to Bryant, tickets were issued and arrests were made in the area by police officers Monday.
“We need people to stay out of those areas. We have the barricades in place marking off the area. There is debris everywhere and even worse, the threat that the remaining walls could collapse. I’ve asked the police department to patrol the area, and we actually made a couple of arrests yesterday from people in there looting, trying to salvage the metal. We’ve also had some tickets written for people driving around the barricades and the railroad tracks to go down there, and the sheriff’s department is also assisting us. That’s an area where people really need to just steer clear of,” said Bryant.
Sheriff Bobby May said anyone caught in the area won’t receive a simple citation from his department. “I want to be clear on this. Anyone my department catches in the area looting or trying to salvage metal will be taken straight to jail. We’re not writing them any tickets. First, that’s a dangerous situation down there and they could do harm to themselves and others. It won’t take much for those walls to collapse and we don’t need anyone getting hurt down there. There’s also all types of sharp and melted metal and bricks down there, and no one who isn’t authorized to remove that stuff should be down there. Second, that metal, that debris, everything down there is private property and belongs to the people who own that property. Taking any of that is stealing and we will look to prosecute anyone we catch down there,” said May.
Forrest City Police Chief E.P. Reynolds was not available for comment this morning.