Chief terms Birdseye blaze ‘suspicious’

Jacob Wiegand/The Herald
Fire crews responded to a fire at the Koerner Block Building on Thursday in Birdseye. Birdseye Fire Chief Dave Smith said the cause of the fire was "suspicious in nature."

By BILL POWELL
bpowell@dcherald.com

BIRDSEYE — The Thursday fire that destroyed the Koerner Commercial Block building — it had been part of Birdseye’s downtown since the 1890s — is being called suspicious.

A call reporting smoke on the east side of State Road 145 south of State Road 64 came in at 3:18 p.m. Thursday. Birdseye Volunteer Fire Department Chief David “Smitty” Smith arrived at the 101 and 103 State Road 145 scene minutes later to find flames coming out front windows on the south end of the building.

As his department rolled into action, Smith quickly arranged for the fire departments in Schnellville and English to assist.

Four hours later, the chief was reporting that a representative with the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office had been closely studying some points on the south end of the building as the investigation into the fire’s cause got underway.

Smith said the fire was “suspicious in nature.” Firefighters remained on scene throughout the night.

Photo courtesy Brittany Schepers

There were no injuries.

Heavy equipment was brought in to take down remaining parts of the brick structure. The goal, Smith said, was to make the scene safe for vehicular traffic on State Road 145, for train traffic on the tracks on the north side of the building and for residents living on the south side of the Koerner Commercial Block.

Archie McCutcheon, chairman of the Save The Koerner Block Committee, initially hoped some remnants of the Koerner building could be saved. Today he was resigned to the structure’s loss but hopeful that a strong volunteer push to improve Birdseye and preserve its past will continue.

“We’re kind of in disbelief but there’s not much you can do about it,” McCutcheon said today.

Photo courtesy Jamie Shugart Breeding

Save the Koerner Block committee volunteers had been closing in on a year of activity — and successes —  in an effort to rescue the part of Birdseye’s old downtown now reduced to rubble. There had been work sessions to stabilize the structure and clean the site. Brush had been cleared and multiple grants had been secured in the months since Indiana Landmarks secured an option agreement with the owners of the Koerner Block, Ronald and Karen Ellis, who had said they were willing to donate the building.

In late February of this year, the Dubois County Commissioners verbally agreed to the preservationists’ request to forgive approximately $10,000 in back taxes so a stabilized Koerner Block could be offered for $1 to a party that could demonstrate an ability to take it on and rehabilitate it.

Upon hearing of the devastating fire Thursday, Greg Sekula, Indiana Landmarks’ southern region director, sent out an email to volunteers.

“I am in shock and in a state of disbelief at this terrible news,” Sekula said. “So many of you have invested so much of your heart and soul and time in this effort ... for that I am most at a loss for words.”

Local fire crews responded to a fire at the Koerner Block Building on Thursday in Birdseye. (Jacob Wiegand/The Herald)

The Koerner Commercial Block was built to a grand scale in phases beginning in 1893. In June 2013, a portion of the rear of the building and its roof collapsed but Sekula had said it retained enough historic furnishings and artistic details to make it one of the most incredible commercial blocks he has seen in the 14 years in his post.

Smith said firefighters had managed to salvage some chairs from the front of the building that had reportedly been manufactured in it.

“Other than that,” the chief said, “there is not going to be much salvageable.”

The Dubois Rural Electric Cooperative and Dubois County Sheriff’s Department were among the agencies assisting at the scene.

Today, Smith thanked the agencies that assisted and the people who brought food and water to firefighters.

Two weeks ago, Sekula and McCutcheon had met with Newburgh architect Adam Green and New Albany masonry restoration expert Tom Johnson. They had been making plans for new walls, floors, ceiling joists and roofing.

Sekula said in his email that he was not sure how the volunteer group would move forward.

“I’m hoping something can be salvaged and some good can come out of this tragedy for Birdseye,” Sekula said.

“We’ve got all these (volunteers) working and we don’t need to say goodbye to everything,” McCutcheon said. “There are several things that need to be done around town that we can work on.

“We need to keep everybody’s head up and move on. We need to keep the town moving.

Schnellville firefighters Nick Weigel and Casey Kern responded to a fire at the Koerner Block Building on Thursday in Birdseye. (Jacob Wiegand/The Herald)
Mike Kellems of Birdseye and Birdseye firefighter Joe Detty watched as local fire crews responded to a fire at the Koerner Block Building in Birdseye. (Jacob Wiegand/The Herald)
A tattoo is seen on the arm of Birdseye firefighter Joe Detty on Thursday as local fire crews responded to a fire at the Koerner Block Building in Birdseye. (Jacob Wiegand/The Herald)
Birdseye Fire Chief Dave Smith surveyed the remains of the Koerner Block Building on Thursday after the structure caught fire in Birdseye. (Jacob Wiegand/The Herald)



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