When Fire Capt. Mike Jobst was a rookie he was warned about one location in Ottawa.
Jobst recalled sitting in the old fire station looking out through the kitchen window at the back end of the old Jordan Hardware store.
“Those old-timers would point and say, ‘Son, you better hope you never get a fire there,’ ” Jobst explained. “And I almost made it without one.”
Jobst, who retired in December 2004, said enough time has passed the memories of the 1998 fire aren’t conjured every time he sees the large downtown lot long since turned into a green space. But Jobst, as well as Fire Chief Steve Haywood and Deputy Fire Chief Andrew Borkowski, revisited those memories by watching police car dashboard camera footage of the fire to mark the event’s 20th anniversary.
‘That isn’t fog’
A Times article from March 19, 1998, cited Jim Slechta as being the person who first identified the fire. Slechta said he was out delivering newspapers around 3:40 a.m. at Bake-Rite Bakery on Main Street when he saw what looked like fog coming off the river.
“That isn’t fog,” Jobst said while watching the video. “That’s smoke.”
As the police car with early dash cam equipment inched closer to the smoky haze around 4:30 a.m., the smoke gave way to a bright blaze in the three-story building.
Jobst knew the fire would be a bad one not only from the warnings of the firefighters who came before him but also from the size of the flames coming out the back entrance and later through the roof.
“You turn the corner, you see the smoke and the first thing out of your mouth is, ‘Oh, (expletive),’ ” Jobst said.
Black smoke billowed out a door, the color being another bad sign indicating the severity of the fire as well as a possible backdraft and potentially chemicals in the smoke.
Borkowski, a newer firefighter at the time, remembered rushing in the front door.
“I thought the tools were falling off the walls, but it was actually the tin ceiling starting to come down,” he said.
The firefighters were asked to retreat when it became clear fighting the fire from inside was unsafe. The area Borkowski was assessing was engulfed in flames and debris by the time he made it back to the sidewalk.
It was clear within the first hour that it would be a long night.
Fire spread over roof, no cause determined
It became clear that no amount of water would sufficiently extinguish the flames with any sort of urgency. As soon as one fire was put it out it would reignite shortly after.
“A lot of times when you get something like this, you write that off,” Jobst said. “You start worrying about protecting (other buildings).”
Jobst, who worked at Jordan Hardware part-time, recalled the buildings were connected on the sales floor and basement. Fire doors were required to be shut at the end of the business day and at all times in the basement. Those fire doors remained shut as was discovered in the ensuing investigation, but as the fire protruded out of the roof it made its way to other buildings.
“As I recall that’s how it moved from building to building was across the top,” Jobst said. “The fire doors were still intact after the fire was out.”
A number of fire departments arrived on scene to battle the blaze, which took days. Haywood estimated he worked a 20-hour shift before taking his break only to return for another eight hours.
He recalled the community’s support throughout the process as is routine for firefighters. The Salvation Army and Red Cross were on hand with food and coffee as were the general public.
Fire investigators were unable to determine a cause or point of origin due to the extensive damage inside the building and surrounding buildings suffered extensive structural damage.
Modern advancements likely no help
While watching the VHS footage, the firefighters commented about the advancements made in the fire department. The modern mutual aid communication line had not yet been established and fire departments had to keep note of which department had which equipment as well as radios for all firefighters and not just officers. The departments also train together much more frequently to prepare for large-scale fires where multiple departments are necessary.
The fire trucks also have larger pumps, but the firefighters still don’t think they would have had enough to douse the block.
“You could have had helicopter drops on that and it probably wouldn’t have done anything,” Jobst said.
It’s a rule of thumb a fire doubles in size every minute, which means the building likely was burning for some time without detection, according to Jobst. The amount of time it was burning before Slechta noticed it is unclear.
“That time of night you don’t have a lot of people out,” Haywood added.
Additionally, Jobst said the age of the building, older firewalls, and the intensity of the flames also made it difficult to put out with some of the streams of water vaporizing before they could do much damage.
Reminding the rookies
Jobst said he’s come to appreciate the Jordan block for what it’s become as an event space and the great introduction it gives for visitors driving into downtown Ottawa from the south.
“It’s so nice when you come from the South Side and you see the clock on the courthouse and it’s just the perfect venue,” Jobst said.
He can look upon the now quiet block and recall the hustle of customers entering shops on the site, but newer firefighters do not have that same perspective.
Six firefighters remain in the department who also fought the Jordan block fire and occasionally a new recruit will be amazed the land was ever anything other than a peaceful park.
“There’s a lot of guys that didn’t realize,” Borkowski said. “They’ll say ‘There was a hardware store there? There was a bar there?’ ”
And in times like this, the senior firefighters will pull out the old VHS tape and relive one of the larger fires of their careers.