United Way fire could have long-term impact on agencies - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

United Way fire could have long-term impact on agencies

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The fire was still smoldering Friday evening. The fire was still smoldering Friday evening.
Connie Purvis couldn't believe the damage. Connie Purvis couldn't believe the damage.

Cat Andersen/Eyewitness News

Columbus - A massive fire destroyed the United Way headquarters in Bartholomew County on Christmas Eve overnight into Christmas Day. The building in downtown Columbus houses dozens of government and social agencies.

The fire was still burning in spots well into the evening, and the smoke had yet to clear. The long-term effects are starting to sink in for residents in Columbus.

The way flames sprang from all parts of the building, they looked fresh and swollen. But this was day two.

"Oh my God," said Connie Purvis, a Columbus resident, as she watched the building burn. "It's been burning since last night?"

Columbus firefighters were far from fresh at this point.

"We don't have fires of this magnitude very often. It's one of those rarities and unfortunately it has to hit on the Christmas holidays," said Dan Cleland, Columbus Fire Department Battalion Chief.

Firefighters had water shooting from the ground, all sides, and rain pouring from the sky.

"It's basically surround it and drown it," Cleland said.

But as much as the building was gushing, it was still glowing.

"Fire load is how much combustibles are on the inside and there's just too much. All the rain is just hitting the roof and running off," said the chief.

"My daughter called me and said the welfare office is on fire and I said, 'No, it's not,' so she sent me a picture and I was like, 'Oh my God,'" said Purvis.

From housing the United Way to family services, many Columbus residents depended on this building for survival.

"If it wasn't for this building here and all the offices in it, a lot of people wouldn't have any help, would they?" said Purvis.

"Different agencies, and it's all gone," said Dan Rutan, Columbus resident.

A lot of the people who turned up to watch the fire say their Christmas dinners were made possible by the offices in the building and - there they were on Christmas Day, watching it burn.

"Why would this one burn?" wondered Purvis. "It's been there forever and I thought they just renovated it not too long ago."

Firefighters say that's the problem. They're dealing with 100-year-old building that was repaired and rebuilt over and over again.

"What crews have been faced with is this building is so cut up and added onto for years and years there's so many voids and open spaces above them," said Cleland, the battalion chief.

It's not just firefighters' minds that were racing.

"The devastation; thank God nobody was there. What are people going to do now that were getting assistance through all these agencies where are they going to go?" Rutan wondered.

No one was seriously injured in the fire, but residents are worried about the hurt that will follow and last long after it's out. The building housed 37 different agencies - many of whom relied on United Way for help.

Cleland says he plans on rotating crews throughout the night if necessary. He says investigating the cause of the fire will have to wait until it's safe enough to send firefighters into the building.

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