City of Mitchell under investigation for broken fire hydrants

This fire hydrant in Mitchell hasn't worked in 50+ years. Just 80 steps away, a home recently burned down.

The fire that destroyed Pam Condra's home should have been a wake-up call.

"Yeah, that was the first sign we had a problem," admits Mitchell Mayor Gary Pruett.

But city leaders did little to address the warning signs, which now point to a potential citywide public safety crisis affecting Mitchell's 4300 residents.

"We know now this is a big issue," Pruett told 13 Investigates. "You can't make this look pretty. It just can't be done … and we are dealing with this right now."

The issue involves 207 fire hydrants throughout the city of Mitchell, a picturesque 3-square-mile town built along a series of busy railroad tracks in southern Indiana.

Some of the hydrants simply don't work. Other do. But town officials aren't sure which ones are reliable to help fight fires.

They've learned that the hard way, and residents like Condra have paid the price.

"Just burned to the ground"

Condra is a soft-spoken woman who wants to share her story, but she pauses repeatedly as she speaks. Saying anything negative about her hometown seems excruciatingly painful.

"I'm speaking out because I don't want anyone else to go through what I went through," she says.

In September, Condra was sitting on the porch of her home when she smelled smoke from an electrical fire inside. Condra and her son ran outside and called 911. Firefighters from the Mitchell Volunteer Fire Department arrived quickly to find flames shooting out the roof and windows. Their tanker trucks were each filled with 1000 gallons of water.

"They were doing just fine," Condra recalls. "They almost had the fire put out. Then they ran out of water."

Firefighters found a hydrant just 80 steps from the burning house on Mississippi Avenue. It did not work.

Neighbor Reba McFall watched as emergency crews tried in vain to open the hydrant.

"They couldn't loosen the little knobs there. It had been so long since it had been used or even flushed, it was frozen," she explained.

Firefighters then tried another hydrant two blocks away. It did not work either. Emergency crews had to wait for a another tanker truck from a nearby township to bring enough water to extinguish the blaze.

"While all this is happening, I'm standing there watching my house burn," Condra said. "It just burned to the ground. I lived in that house since I was seven years old. My whole childhood was there. Every Sunday we had Sunday dinner with my parents there. My whole life was in that house, and now it's gone. I just don't understand. Why wasn't there any water?"

Condra asked city officials that question last fall, immediately after the fire.

The same question is now being asked again.

More fires expose more hydrant problems

Last month, lightning struck a home on Eighth Street and, again, volunteer firefighters responded right away.

"They came but nobody had water," said Tina Colbert, who rushed home after a neighbor called to tell her home was on fire. "Hoses were all over the ground, no water running through them. None. It was just surreal. No water. None."

Colbert's house sits in the middle of a block, with a fire hydrant on both ends. Neither of the hydrants worked, according to Colbert and her neighbors.

"I was there and I saw it," said Chris Clock, a next-door neighbor whose house was damaged from the intense heat. "There was no water coming out of those hydrants."

"Not a drop," echoed Colbert, who had moved into her parents' home in a nearby town. "I lost everything. My daughter and I only have the clothes on our backs. It's not the first house and it's not the last house affected by this."

She's right.

Last week, Mitchell firefighters were dispatched to battle a house fire on Fifth Street. City officials discovered -- yet again -- the closest fire hydrant did not work.

"The one at Firth and Warren [Streets] we didn't know about. That was a surprise. We just found out about that a few days ago," the mayor said.

Extent of problem unknown

How many fire hydrants in Mitchell are broken?

Both the mayor and the fire chief admit they have no idea.

"I really don't know," said Pruett. "But we sure want to."

"I don't know at this point, but it wouldn't surprise me if we had some more that we don't know about," said fire chief Tyler Duncan, who also oversees the city's water department. "Some things that old, you can have problems with."

Some of Mitchell's fire hydrants are more than 70 years old. Yet the city has not been following state law which requires regular testing and flushing of all hydrants. No one can remember the last time Mitchell conducted a thorough testing of its hydrants, and the city has no records to show any testing at all.

"I'm not sure why that happened, but it stops now," said the mayor, a lifelong Mitchell resident who took office in 2012. "I have a hydrant by my house, and my neighbor asked me if it works. I can't say if it does or not. I haven't seen it work. I didn't know when it was last flushed, but that's on the list of things to do. We've got to find these things out."

Mitchell residents are required to pay a monthly "hydrant rental fee" to maintain all of the hydrants, even though city leaders admit hydrants like the one in Reba McFall's front yard haven't worked in decades.

"I'm quite perturbed by it," she said. "If there's a fire at my house, I already figure I'm going to lose everything."

Investigation underway

The city of Mitchell is now conducting its own investigation. It is preparing to test hydrants throughout the city. The town of Bedford is loaning testing equipment since Mitchell does not have any of its own. The Indiana Department of Homeland Security has dispatched a representative from the state fire marshal's office to assist the city in its investigation and to provide technical advice.

The mayor expects to post a public notice next week to alert residents about the testing and flushing that will take place. He hopes to have the testing completed within a few weeks, and will then report the results to residents.

"What we have to remember is we've lost almost all industry jobs, so we simply don't have the financial means in this community and the income to fix all of our infrastructure all at once," explained Pruett. "It's a little town and we do things when we can." He also points out that some of the city's recently destroyed homes might not have been saved by firefighters even if hydrants had been working properly.

At the same time, the mayor acknowledged previous town leaders neglected infrastructure (including fire hydrants) for decades, and the practice cannot continue.

"That kind of thinking and that approach can't work. It won't work. It's not working," he said.

Colbert could not agree more.

"I really think the city botched this up. They should have been on top of this. I just hope they fix it so no family has to go through this again, she said."