‘Grand Junction’s most damaging holocaust’
The Daily Sentinel’s front page on April 9, 1974, included an article about city crews repairing sinking sidewalks on Main Street and another on a new oil shale lease in Utah. The biggest national story was in sports: A day earlier, Atlanta Braves star Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s 39-year-old record.
But the news delivered that afternoon was quickly overwhelmed by what occurred that evening. A massive fire engulfed South Seventh Street. It was “Grand Junction’s most damaging holocaust,” according to a history of the Grand Junction Fire Department published in The Journal of the Western Slope published in 1988.
It destroyed Mesa Feed and Farm Supply, as well as H&M Electric, just to the south of the feed plant. The Daily Sentinel’s press building was destroyed, but not its administrative offices.
Stores of wood in a lumberyard east of the Sentinel were destroyed, and the American Linen Co. on Ninth Street caught fire, but that blaze was quickly extinguished.
With considerable effort and luck, firefighters kept the conflagration from spreading to the large Conoco fuel tanks just east of the lumber facility. Still, embers from the fire drifted as far as 12th Street.
Three firefighters were treated for cuts and smoke inhalation. One suffered a lacerated tendon, but was there were no other serious injuries reported.
Excessive spring winds were blamed for causing the fire, as well as spreading it rapidly and making it difficult to fight. Those winds, reportedly as high as 55 mph, knocked down electric wires and transformers near Mesa Feed, causing sparks that arced into the feed plant sometime around 7:30 p.m. and soon had the wooden buildings and large grain elevator towers engulfed in flame.
The winds made battling the fire extremely dangerous, recalled former fireman Mike Page. “The wind was so strong it was blowing the smoke horizontal,” he said. “When we arrived at the scene and crossed the railroad tracks, we couldn’t see because of the smoke. We rode on the tailboards at the time, and as we crossed the tracks, I hid my head under a tarp because of the smoke. When I looked up, we were heading straight for a telephone pole.” The pumper truck narrowly missed the pole, he said.
Page, who retired last month as public information officer for the fire department, was a second-year firefighter in 1974, and he had to deal with other wind-related problems.
“As Mesa Feed burned, pieces of tin would break loose and they were red hot,” he said. “They would blow across the street toward the Sentinel. One of them blew across our line and cut it. The engineer said someone had to go in and reattach it” where the line had been cut. Page was chosen to make the repair in an area darkened by smoke and near the flames. “It was pretty scary,” he recalled. “But the other guys watched my back.”
Sometime before 9:30 p.m., embers from the Mesa Feed fire ignited the Sentinel’s press building, apparently because embers got into the pads of an evaporative air cooler on top of the building.
The burning pads dropped pieces into the rolls of newsprint below. The Sentinel fire really took off when the heat caused the paper’s tanks full of petroleum-based ink to erupt in flame.
Wayne Marks, a lieutenant with the Grand Junction Rural Fire Department, which at the time operated with separate equipment from the city department, arrived on the Sentinel site with a three-man pumper-truck crew shortly after that fire started.
“We had one hose line and three guys. That’s all we had,” he recalled. Most of the other equipment was devoted to Mesa Feed and H&M Electric, or to preventing the blaze from spreading.
Even so, Marks said his small crew had the worst of the Sentinel fire out in several hours. “But I spent the whole night and part of the next day there,” he added. “It would just smolder. Those paper rolls, you couldn’t get down to them. Then the ink. It was just like gasoline.”
Reporters Mary Louise Giblin and Larry Brown were each in their homes in the eastern downtown area when the fire started, and each went outside to see what was causing the glow in the southern sky.
Pressman Teddy Jordan was watching the movie “The Sting” with his wife, the late Kathy Jordan, at the Mesa Theater downtown. “We stepped out of the theater and saw the flames. We went to the Fifth Street viaduct, and then Orchard Mesa to watch.” They joined hundreds of other onlookers there. But soon, someone said people with homes north of the fire area should watch for embers that might settle on their rooftops. So, the Jordans went home to protect their North Seventh Street house.
Publisher Ken Johnson was attending meetings in Salt Lake City when he received a phone call from Sentinel General Manager Chan Edmonds about 1 a.m. “They’re burning us to the ground,” Edmonds told him.
Sentinel Editor Barclay Jameson was attending a school board meeting, just observing, he said. “Someone called and got me out of the meeting,” he recalled. “I went down there and the fire was raging on the west side of the street, but embers were blowing over to the Sentinel building.”
There were understandably problems and confusion in battling such a large blaze:
■ Crews from an outlying fire district showed up to help, but found they didn’t have the correct hose size or adapters to use the city’s fire equipment.
■ Small fires that ignited at two businesses on Colorado Avenue briefly led authorities to believe that arsonists were behind the big fire on South Seventh Street.