The fire and devastation in downtown Denison on Oct. 9 brought back memories from a previous fire just across Main Street on a cold, icy Dec. 23 and Christmas Eve. Even 30 years later, firefighters who were involved with that fire are still held by the emotions of that time.
During that Christmas holiday, Denison not only lost three buildings on the south side of Main Street in the heart of downtown, it lost one of its own — firefighter T.O. Fulce. The longtime Denison Fire Department employee was one of the firefighters on the roof of the Salvation Army Thrift Store/Kingston Drug Store when it gave way. Fulce plummeted two stories into the conflagration. For the firefighters, the job suddenly became twofold: fight the fire and rescue a fallen brother.
Downtown’s Heritage Park is the site of that 1989 fire. It was renamed within the past 10 years and a memorial for Fulce adorns the location. But that year, the end of the 300 block of West Main Street looked much different. As one faces the south side of the street – going from east to west – the buildings were Newsome’s Fine Clothing, Kingston Drug/Salvation Army Thrift Store, Dr. Thompson’s Optometry Office and Beall’s Department Store. The thrift store, optometry office and Beall’s were total losses. Newsome’s had to be torn down after the fire due to the damage.
Ronnie Cole, owner of Crouch Home Furnishings, which was further east along that block, recalled that firefighters were doing all they could that fateful day. Cole remembered returning to town over the viaduct that night (Dec. 23); the area had an “orange glow” and it looked like “the whole block was on fire.” He thought Crouch’s was gone, but it was spared.
“They wanted to vent that fire. They were having a real hard time getting to those windows upstairs that had been covered up with tin,” noted Cole. “We immediately opened up (Crouch’s) to help in any way we could. Firefighters and volunteers came in to get out of the cold all night long.”
David Whitlock, Grayson County Commissioner, Pct. 2, had worked with Fulce for nine years as local firefighters. Whitlock had been gone almost two years from the DPD, but was hard hit with the loss of his brother-in-arms.
“We were at the old Southside Fire Station for nine years. He was a good man and a good friend,” said Whitlock, reminiscing about his 1980s work life. “T.O. had four jobs (a paper route, raising pigs, roofing and fireman). He was the hardest working man I’ve ever known or met.”
Whitlock and Fulce worked the ambulance together for most of those nine years. Whitlock smiled when recalling an experience on a particular run.
“We delivered the first baby by the DFD in its history,” laughed Whitlock. “T.O. had all the children. I didn’t have any, but I couldn’t get him to help. He just stayed in the driver’s seat.”
When asked about his feelings on the events of Christmas Eve 1989, Whitlock became emotional.
“It made me sick when I heard. I just couldn’t believe it,” he said slowly. “It still makes me sad. Such an outstanding man. Everyone liked him. He loved his kids. I wish I had been there. Maybe, I could have helped. I don’t know…”
Whitlock also noted that the fire this fall took his memory back some 30 years when he heard about it.
“It brought back a lot of memories. I’m so glad no one was hurt. It would have been devastating if there had been,” he said. “It’s hard to lose someone like that; someone who is serving his community.”
Ben Munson, a local lawyer, was mayor of Denison when the fire happened. He served from 1988 - 1994.
“I was there that night, as well as Oct. 9 (2019). It was eerie how similar the scenes were,” said Munson. “Of course, we didn’t have the (fire) equipment in 1989 that we have now, but it was much the same, in the same block even.”
In the aftermath, Munson said there was a drive to return downtown to its original shape and look in 1989, but Beall’s Department Store declined to rebuild at that location. It was the key “domino” that left that space open and was eventually converted into a park.
“There was a great sense of loss, just like there is now,” Munson said. “Once we determined we couldn’t rebuild, we worked diligently on the park idea. We wanted to develop a use that enhanced downtown. The support we received really helped. This sense of family is strong in Denison.”
According to Cole, that night in 1989 was “the coldest night of the year.” In fact, the night did set weather records.
“The water was turning to ice. I remember when the firefighters came in, I had to beat on their coat clasps to break them open; they were frozen shut,” he recalled. “Their hands were so cold that they couldn’t use them. It was such a sight. I’ll never forget it.”
“I’m still impressed by the way the (firefighters) worked in such harsh conditions, and to lose one of their own, too,” Cole continued. “It could have been the whole block if not for them. It was a sad, sad night in Denison history.”
Another downtown business owner, James Green, also noted the loss of “four great businesses” in Denison in the aftermath of the fire. But he did add that Heritage Park is a singular addition to downtown. The push for the park was started by now deceased Denison artist, Mike Williams.
“Mike was wonderful. He loved Denison so much,” Green said. “He wanted to do something special for that area.”
Work on the site began with a stand-alone gazebo shortly after the debris was cleared. A memorial for Fulce, a bandstand and landscaping were added over time. A restroom facility opened in recent years, too. The city has updated the area as needed over the years. It is now officially called Heritage Park and is part of the city of Denison Parks and Recreation Department.
Annette Richardson grew up in Denison. Her family owned Ernie’s Restaurant downtown. The night of the 1989 fire, they opened the business (which was on Rusk Street about a block away) to feed the firefighters and volunteers.
“We kept it open the whole time,” recalled Richardson. “We kept the food and drinks coming all night. Even our customers came in to help cook and deliver food. It was just incredible.”
According to Richardson, the feeling of the community was “total devastation” during that time, especially when it was discovered that DPD had lost a firefighter in the blaze.
“We were just run over with emotion that night,” she said. “But everyone came together when we needed it, just like this recent fire. Everyone in Denison pulled together then just like now.”
Richardson remembered that the conditions that day and night were “treacherous” with snow, freezing rain and wind. Socks were in constant demand for firefighters as their feet would freeze from being out in the cold all those hours.
“No one slept that night. There was some hard work,” she continued. “People who weren’t even part of it were there helping; firefighter wives were cooking and delivering food. No one took a break. Some napped on the sofas just to sleep an hour or two and be right back at it (fighting the fire).”
“That fire, more than anything, seemed to bring the community together. It changed Denison forever,” Richardson continued. “It’s a part of our history, just like this last one.”
Fulce – the deceased firefighter – was an “awesome guy,” according to Richardson. He was a good friend to her family, one who provided for his own and “worked round the clock.”
“T.O. was a good friend. My brother-in-law (who died in 2015) was with him on that roof that night,” she said. “Tim (Rutherford, the B-I-L) told me that one second T.O. was there and the next, he wasn’t. It was devastating. Tim was never the same after that.”
Other firefighters were near the edge of the roof, but Fulce was closer to the center checking on the magnitude of the fire below. Apparently, he hit a “soft spot” and fell through the roof.
“T.O.’s group was in front (on the Main Street side) and we were in back (alleyway), both working the roof (of the SA Thrift Store),” recalled Larry Townsend, one of the first firefighters on the scene. “By the time we got there, (the fire) was really going. We couldn’t see our hands in front of us because it was so smoky. Within 10 minutes or so, we had to get down. It was out of control by then.”
According to Townsend, his group in the back went “defensive” because there was no ventilation available for the fire. “It was raging inside that building,” he added.
Townsend, a 30 year DFD veteran, noted that the fire then traveled through a little-known passageway and hit Beall’s Department Store.
“There was no cross ventilation for (the fire), and we couldn’t stop it at that point,” explained Townsend, who retired in 2007. “The only thing that stopped it was the street at the end of the block.”
Townsend remembers fighting the fire all that night and into Christmas Eve daylight. No one took breaks. He added that everyone wanted to find T.O. and to put that fire out as soon as possible.
“T.O. was a great guy. I worked with him for years,” Townsend said. “We were playing ping pong at the station when the call came in (Dec. 23). It’s hard to believe he’s gone. It seems like forever ago, but then, it doesn’t. It’s all a blur now. I just know I was doing my job fighting that fire, but it was a tragedy.”
Townsend believes that the event “showed Denison how fast a fire could travel” and that this fall’s fire- fighting benefited from the lessons learned in 1989. In both events, the people of Denison came together to help.
“It was hard for Denison both times, but people came to help and they are still helping,” he said. “That shows the true character of a community.”
Bill Taylor, a 30 year veteran of the DFD, was on the scene in 1989. He had more to think about than just the fire.
“We had problems getting water to the source – or anywhere else,” recalled Taylor, DFD fire chief at the time. “The streets were so icy that we had trouble just getting there. There was ice and snow everywhere.”
According to Taylor, DFD had about 50 men on site — the entire department.
“The flames were mostly upstairs. Eventually, they swept through the roof and it collapsed. It was raging,” remembered Taylor. “It was so hard to get any windows open because they were covered up. The only way up to the second floor was a back staircase, which was fully involved by that time.”
Taylor, who retired in 2005, explained that the only way to fight the fire at that point was from the roof of the thrift store. When the ceiling caved-in, the firefighters could get to the fire itself.
“It was a bad situation, bad weather, and a bad location for the fire. And then it was worse when we lost T.O. Losing a brother firefighter is something you never get over and never forget,” said Taylor, his voice cracking. “His loss was terrible all the way around.”
According to Taylor, there was a three-man fire team in the Beall’s Department Store at the western end of the block who were attempting to hold the fire from coming that far. Neither them nor the department knew of the passageway, which allowed the fire to travel across the block.
“When the fire got there (to Beall’s), the explosion blew out all the existing windows left. (The firefighters) had a hose and were trying to hold back the fire,” Taylor explained. “They were lucky to get out alive. At first, we thought we had lost more men.”
Taylor is glad that Denison did something for the community with the site; it helps everyone remember.
“That night was such a loss for Denison and downtown in so many ways,” he noted. “We can’t forget.”
Firefighters fought the tremendous fire from 5 p.m. on Dec. 23 until late in the day on Christmas Eve. Hot spots were monitored and put out as the hours went on. James Littrell started his vacation at the same time. Later that evening, he got a call from Taylor, who told him to “come downtown; we’ve got extensive damage.”
“I was there by 11 p.m. ready to work,” recalled Littrell, the fire marshal at the time. “I remember it was extremely cold; single digits. There were a lot of departments there helping us fight it (Sherman, Pottsboro, Perrin, Bells and Bonham). I started my investigation right then.”
According to Littrell, the most probable cause of the fire – due to the extensive damage – was a vent pipe from a gas fueled heater on the second floor of the former Kingston Drugstore and then, the Salvation Army Thrift Store, which had only opened the month before. In addition to the fire, Littrell was fighting other emotions.
“It was such a tragic time. It was the saddest day of my life. T.O. was not only my fellow firefighter, he was my best friend,” Littrell said. “He was such a fantastic man, such a kind person. If you couldn’t get along with T.O., you couldn’t get along with anybody.”
Littrell mentioned that he and Fulce “did things off duty together” and had a “strong friendship.”
“I worked all night as much for him as I did for the fire,” Littrell said. “I had to take the dental records to Parkland (Hospital in Dallas) and help with the positive ID. It was a hard time for me, it being T.O. I just had to focus on doing my job.”
Littrell added that “Christmas was so different that year” and that the fire had “an impact on the city,” with people coming together over tragedy.
“I was fire marshal for almost 20 years and investigated more than 2,000 fires,” Littrell said. “Losing a firefighter in a fire is tough, especially one who grew up in your town. I’m so grateful that no one got hurt in that latest fire (Oct. 9, 2019).”
Dennis Manus, who spent 28 years with the DFD, was off duty on Dec. 23, but got there as soon as he could. He describes the scene as “something I’ve never seen so bad” and “ice – inches and inches of it – was on everything.” Later, Fulce’s fate was added to the mix; a combination of horror and despair.
“I try not to think about it much. It was a major event in our lives and always will be,” Manus said.
Manus recalled it took 12 hours to get to Fulce’s body; it was 5 a.m. Christmas Eve.
“We were in the back trying to get to him, but the building was caving in and it was so cold, bitterly cold outside,” said an emotional Manus. “I have blocked a lot of it out of my head. Most of the time, you work in your job all your life and never see a co-worker die, but that day we did.”
Manus explained that a fire department is “like family,” where you are never more than five feet from one of your brother firefighters all day every day.
“It was a bad time that night. Denison lost half a city block and a good man,” Manus said. “I still look at that park and it reminds me of what happened.”
Manus was one of three firefighters tasked to help save the Beall’s Department Store building. He was with firefighter Tom Floyd and Lt. Larry Weaver.
“It was an incredible scene when we went in. People were still shopping! There was a fire two doors down and here were people Christmas shopping. (It was) so surreal,” recalled Manus. “We got them out. That’s when the vent blew through Beall’s and knocked out every glass window on that side of Main Street. It blew me down the stairs. Lt. Weaver got me and Floyd out somehow.”
Manus also recalled the effect of Fulce’s death on one of the men on that fateful roof. Manus was a partner to Tim Rutherford.
“T.O. was amazing. He took care of everyone. It was so tragic. It sucked the life out of Tim. He was never the same again,” Manus said. “Most of us just stayed quiet in the days after. It was like working in a morgue. No one said anything. No one laughed for a long time.”
After discussing their memories of the 1989 fire, everyone interviewed praised Denison residents and the reaction to the tragic event.
“All that night, we had citizens just come by to check on everyone and see if they could help,” summarized downtown business owner Ronnie Cole. “There are a lot of caring people in Denison. It is a testament to the people of our city.”