Anderson High School's destruction recalled 20 years later

Staff Writer

    ANDERSON, Ind. (AP) — At one time, Anderson Fire Department Station 1 Battalion Chief Greg Reed went from classroom to classroom and attended sporting events at the Wigwam at Anderson High School.
    "I used to go to the ball games all the time, trying to root 'em on," the 1977 graduate said. Reed's parents and 11 siblings also were AHS graduates.
    But on June 25, 1999, the off-duty firefighter was called to the scene of a tragic fire at the building at the intersection of 14th and Lincoln streets. The school, which originally cost $150,000 to build, opened to students in 1910 but has been closed since 1997.
    "It was chaos. When I got there, there was all kinds of trucks there and they had volunteer companies coming in," said Reed, a 30-year AFD veteran.
    Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the fire that consumed an important part of Anderson history.
    The dispatch call came in at 2:52 p.m. By the time firefighters arrived, the smoke reportedly could be seen as far away as Muncie and Indianapolis.
    Mike McKinley, who retired from the department after 26 years and now serves as internal affairs investigator for the Indiana Horse Racing Commission, was battalion chief in charge of the scene of the AHS fire. As soon as he saw the fire, he knew he would need more resources than AFD alone could muster.
    "We looked over and the sky was black already. We said, 'This isn't good,'" he said. "It took more than what the fire department had themselves."
    McKinley called for mutual aid from fire departments from Middletown, Chesterfield, Daleville, Elwood and Yorktown and put in the call to now-retired Anderson Water Department head Tom Brewer to send more water and increase the pressure.
    "I knew we were going to need more than just the fire hydrants," he said. "We fought that fire for so long, we called to get the water boosted three times. The third time, the water chief told me he couldn't do it a fourth time. Everything goes through that same set of pipes. He said 'I can't give you any more.'"
    Under the command of Chief Jerry Quire, the firefighters set up aerials and attacked the fire from above and from below, McKinley said. The final challenge, however, was the auditorium-turned-library.
    "We could not get water to the seat of the fire," he said.
    At the suggestion of another firefighter, he called the Street Department and had sandbags delivered, stacking them three deep and creating an enclosure.
    "We filled it up like a swimming pool. That's how we got the last of the fire out," he said. "I don't know of that happening before or happening since. It was really thinking outside the box."
    In the end, the school was lost, but the storied Wigwam, believed to be the second-largest high school fieldhouse in the world, was saved.
    "The fire walls worked. They kept the fire in one position. It didn't travel into the gym," McKinley said.
    Though residents were evacuated by public safety officials from parts of the surrounding neighborhood, an estimated 500 people gathered to reminisce and mourn the loss of their alma mater as the fire raged. In the aftermath, curious onlookers and graduates drove from as far away as Kentucky and Michigan to share memories and video record the event.
    One of the more bizarre scenes, McKinley said, was alumni walking back and forth along the sidewalk singing the school's fight song.
    "We had people cussing us because they thought we couldn't get it out fast enough," he said. "I went to that school, but it was just another fire for me to get out."
    Madison County Historian Stephen Jackson was in the crowd.
    "I stood at that site on two different occasions and watched Anderson history go up in smoke," he said.
    On Nov. 7 1958, when he was a sophomore at AHS, Jackson was a witness to history when the original Wigwam burned to the ground in an electrical fire. He was at lunch downtown when he saw a succession of trucks racing down the street.
    But in 1999, Jackson said he was just getting off from work at Guide Lamp when he saw something that wasn't quite right.
    "I looked off to the north and saw a huge plume of black smoke rising in the sky. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it had to be significant," he said.
    Following the plume of smoke, he arrived at the scene of the fire.
    "You could tell it was gone. Basically, you could tell what they were trying to do was to save the Wigwam," he said. "It was something that never could be replaced. You looked around the crowd of faces, and it was just long faces, as they watched the firemen do their work. It was just a sense an old friend was passing."
    After the fire was extinguished, its origins were investigated by the Indiana State Fire Marshal's Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It was determined to be arson.
    Though a suspect was identified, no one ever was charged or convicted.