CHESTER, W.Va. – A year after the “The Towering Inferno” burned up American movie screens, Chester had “The Sprawling Inferno” – a fire known to local firefighters as “the big one,” a fire that, for years, stood as the most destructive in West Virginia history.
Forty years ago today, that fire destroyed Ohio Valley Stoneware in the Upper End, putting another definitive nail in the coffin of Chester’s pottery industry
“It was a big loss for the city,” said Chester Fire Chief John Hissam, the only surviving member of the Chester Volunteer Fire Department to have responded to the fire.
“Losing that plant was a very big blow,” said former co-owner George Vardy, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz. “It’s hard to see your life’s work go up in smoke, I can tell you that.”
The fire did an estimated $3-$5 million in damage, injured six firefighters, including Hissam, and left nearly 300 employees without a job.
Investigations by the State Fire Marshal, the insurance company and the Chester VFD determined that the fire was suspicious but never settled on an official cause. Theories ranged from an overheated air compressor to an intentionally-lit pile of cardboard in an elevator shaft.
Unable to rebuild in Chester, the company concentrated its efforts on a plant in Wellsville and a plant in Jackson, Miss. But all that’s left now for Hissam and Vardy are memories of a devastating, rainy night on Sept. 17, 1975.
Hissam, 68, had been on the department for five years and had already made the rank of lieutenant. He was in charge of the interior attack at fire scenes.
The Ohio Valley Stoneware fire was unlike anything he’d ever seen before – or since.
“In all my years here, it’s the closest we’ve come to losing people. We were very fortunate not to have four to six guys dead or critically injured,” he said.
Although the fire was 40 years ago, Hissam’s memories of the event are clear and detailed. He had been at the fire station, having a meeting with the men, when the call came in at 8:30 p.m. of a possible fire at Ohio Valley Stoneware. It was a Wednesday night.
Former site of the Harker Pottery Co., Ohio Valley Stoneware had been open in the Upper End, churning out crock pot inserts for the Rival Co., for about 15 months, Vardy said. The plant had six acres under one roof, including offices, large tunnel and circle kilns and the manufacturing floor.
The fire department responded with an engine and an aerial truck, manned by 15 firefighters. Hissam was on the ladder truck. “When we got there, there was no smoke showing or anything. The guy who met us at the plant said that it was in the back of the pottery by the elevator shafts,” he said. “We made the turn to go down by the pottery, and the smoke started to come out of the top window of the first floor.”
Hissam said it didn’t take long for the fire to spread from the point of origin, through the elevator shaft and along the flat roof. The plant’s large, open manufacturing spaces filled with flames and smoke.
“We knew once it was on that ceiling, it was going to come right across. There was not going to be any way to stop it,” he said. “It just went wild ’cause it was a wooden roof that was built in the 1800s, and it had all this tar paper and stuff on it.”
Even with the available hydrants and water tankers, containing such a large fire would have required 18,000 to 20,000 gallons a minute, Hissam said. The most the fire department could muster was 4,500 gallons a minute.
“There was just not enough water. Without water, you can’t do it,” he said.
Chester officials called for mutual aid and got it from all the Hancock County departments, as well as East Liverpool, Liverpool Township, Calcutta, Glenmoor, Wellsville and Hookstown, Pa. More than 200 men from 18 departments ended up battling the blaze, but to no avail. (A Weirton fire engine crashed off Kings Creek Road on its way to the Chester fire.)
“Any department we could think of within 30 miles, we called. And they came. We had a lot of manpower, but we couldn’t gain the water,” Hissam said. “What we had was coming out of the city fire plugs.”
When the effort became an exercise in futility, the firefighters started to evacuate. Hissam was operating the ladder, while a brother firefighter was at the top of the ladder.
When Hissam tells this part of the story, he slips into the present tense. He points to a photograph showing him as a small, black silhouette at the bottom of the ladder and his comrade near the top – against a backdrop of a rising, massive wall of fierce orange flames.
“It’s starting to blow up,” he said. “The roof and everything is all starting to cave in. The fire ball is coming up, and we’re screaming. I’m screaming to get him down. … When he got about right here (points to the ladder), I’m screaming, ‘Move the truck, move the truck!’ and they’re cutting the hoses with axes.”
Hissam said they couldn’t move the truck until the other firefighter was safely down the ladder, but any further delay put all the men in jeopardy. They cut their losses by cutting the fully-charged hoses.
“If we had taken the time, I’d have died, he would have died, the truck would have been burned up. The building blew up, and the walls would have fallen on us,” he said.
Despite the evasive action, Hissam suffered second-degree burns to his legs and had to be taken to East Liverpool City Hospital. Five other firefighters also were injured. Chester VFD equipment, including a reserve pumper, sustained $15,000 in damage, he said.
The estimated 75 employees who were nearing the end of the second shift, however, had been safely evacuated.
Vardy, 80, first heard about the fire by phone, eating at a hotel restaurant with his business partner, Gary Frampton, in Peoria, Ill. The men first met while they were working for Pfaltzgraff in York, Pa. (Frampton died in his native Irondale, Ohio, on Aug. 9 at age 79.)
Vardy had started in the pottery industry at age 16 while working in his native Stoke-on-Trent, England. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1967 and settled in Pennsylvania.
Good friends since 1970, Vardy and Frampton decided to go into business together in 1972. They acquired the old Sterling China Co. in Wellsville and reopened it as Cardinal Stoneware, where they began production of the Rival Crock-Pot inserts.
The partners then turned their sights toward Chester and the old Harker facility. They bought it from Anchor Hocking, which also owned the neighboring Taylor, Smith & Taylor Co., and opened Ohio Valley Stoneware in 1974.
At the height of production, the Wellsville and Chester plants produced 5 million crock pot inserts a year, or more than 100,000 a week, Vardy said.
On Sept. 17, 1975, Vardy and Frampton were on their way to Kansas City, Mo., to negotiate the next year’s production levels for Rival. They stopped over in Peoria and were eating at a restaurant when the maitre d’ told them there was a phone call.
“He said, ‘Your secretary’s on the phone.’ Gary took the call, and when he came back, I said, ‘What’s up?'” Vardy recalled. “He said, ‘The plant’s on fire.’ Flippantly, I said, ‘Did you tell them to put it out?’ He said, ‘It’s burning down.’ We were in shock, absolutely in shock.”
The men went back to their room, and Vardy called his wife, Jean, who played a radio news broadcast for him over the phone. “I could hear them saying the flames were 1,500 feet high,” he said.
Vardy and Frampton caught the next plane back to Ohio, arriving in Wellsville around 7 the next morning. When they got to the Chester plant, practically nothing was left standing.
Vardy estimates that only 25,000 square feet of the 250,000-square-foot plant was still intact. “All the major factory space, all the offices – everything was gone,” he said. “All the girders – the 18-inch girders holding the roof up – looked like pretzels.”
Vardy learned from his plant manager and plant engineer what had happened the night before. The engineer, Lorne McLeod, was on the mezzanine floor when he noticed smoke coming from a door leading to the basement, Vardy said.
When McLeod opened the door, smoke poured out and he saw flames coming from an air compressor. “He immediately phoned the fire brigades,” Vardy said.
“What happened was: The fire started in the compressor in the basement, and before they could get to it, the fire spread along to the elevator shaft and went up the elevator shaft,” he said. “Lorne’s testimony was that when he opened the door from the mezzanine floor to the basement, the fire was burning pretty ferociously at the point of the compressor, which of course was working a lot, with three shifts going. There’s isn’t any doubt that’s where the fire began.”
The elevator shaft acted like a chimney, drawing air and flames up toward other parts of the building, Hissam explained.
While Hissam doesn’t doubt the point of origin, he disputes the compressor theory. “It was not electric,” he said. “When we looked at it days later, you could tell the fire was started in the elevator shaft with a bunch of cardboard.”
Hissam surmises the fire was started by a disgruntled employee with a petty grudge. Prior to the fire call, two small fires had been discovered, and quickly put out, in company trash cans, he said.
“We were pretty sure we knew who did it; we just were never able to prove it,” he said.
The cause of the fire was listed as suspicious, but no one was ever prosecuted, Hissam said.
While Vardy acknowledges the fire could have been set, he can’t imagine a motive for such an action. “Who’s going to burn down a plant making that kind of money?” he said. “We were quite profitable at the time.”
Vardy and Frampton decided against trying to rebuild the Chester plant, opting instead to expand operations in Wellsville and transform a tile plant in Jackson, Miss., into a crock pot facility.
As for the people who lost their jobs, the company and the union did what they could. “What can you do in those circumstances? You can’t really do a lot,” Vardy said. “It was a terrible tragedy.”
(Huba can be contacted at [email protected])