Firefighters Reflect on Fatal Indianapolis Athletic Club Fire

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For most of its nearly 100 years, the Indianapolis Athletic Club was a high-toned private club where business leaders and politicians cut deals and where their debutante daughters danced their first fox trots. The club folded in 2004, but the clubhouse, now carved into condos, still looks as it always did, reports

But to members of the Indianapolis Fire Department, the Athletic Club is a place of dread and loss and has been since Feb. 5, 1992. They talk about the place in hushed tones. They don’t want to be reminded of it, but they also don’t want to forget it.

Some of the veterans, such as Battalion Chief Doug Abernathy, can’t even look at the place. They don’t even drive past it. “I avoid the corner of Meridian and Vermont,” Abernathy said. “What happened there was our ‘day of infamy.'”

But on Friday Abernathy went there.

The day of infamy occurred around midnight 24 years ago. Athletic Club employees smelled smoke and called 911. Firefighters arrived four minutes later. They came in through the Meridian Street entrance and saw smoke but no fire. “On the scene, nothing showing, will investigate,” they radioed.

Despite the presence of firefighters in full gear, the Athletic Club was the picture of order. Staffers and others milled about the ornate, wood-paneled lobby in no hurry to leave the building. A report published later by the U.S. Fire Administration found that “most occupants appeared to have dressed and collected some valuables before evacuating.”

The firefighters, including relative newbie John J. Lorenzano and 21-year-veteran Ellwood “Woody” Gelenius, began combing the club, looking for the fire. An alarm indicated the fire was in the basement, but there was no fire there. They headed up the terrazzo staircase to the upper floors. They encountered a group of overnight guests walking calmly down the stairs single file, which struck Abernathy as strange. They were jury members in professional boxer Mike Tyson’s rape trial. Herded by a bailiff, they were evacuating the building.

Firefighters soon found the fire, caused by an electrical malfunction in the third-floor barroom, and began hosing it down. The fire appeared to be under control.

Then several things happened. The firefighters’ oxygen tanks began to run low, thick smoke suddenly appeared from the ceiling, and the lights went out. “We’re in the dark, and the smoke is getting heavier and heavier, and a lot of us are running out of air,” Abernathy said. “We realized we didn’t have a handle on that fire.”

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