KXLY fire blamed on roofer’s torch
By Jim Camden
and Bill Morlin
Roofers accidentally started a two-alarm fire Monday afternoon on the building housing KXLY’s television and radio facilities, knocking all three stations off the air for several hours and forcing about 100 employees to evacuate.
Reporters found themselves covering a story in their own back yard, and the Channel 4 early evening news was broadcast from a parking lot across from the studio, using portable equipment.
The fire started on top of the south side of the building on Boone, where a crew of about 10 workers were putting on a new roof.
Roofer Denny Lynch said he was using a torch to heat a strip of new roofing material that had just been laid shortly before 2:30 p.m. The material comes in rolls with tar covering fiberglass, and must be heated to make it stick.
“The next thing we knew, the whole wall (a parapet above the roof) was on fire,” Lynch said. The flame from a torch may have gone through the roofing material and ceiling insulation to start the fire, he said.
The roofers had been using a propane torch on strips used for sealing corners, said Capt. Bob McBride, fire department investigator.
“They dumped three portable fire extinguishers and a bucket of water on it, but the fire got away from them and they couldn’t keep up with it,” he said. “It just moved fast and got away from them.”
He estimated the fire was confined to a 20-by-20 section of the building’s roof, attic and ceiling near an air conditioning cooling unit that also appeared to have been damaged. There was no immediate damage estimate.
Martha Lou Wheatley, a reporter for KXLY radio, which has offices nearest the fire, said she and other employees noticed a smell that was different from the hot tar they had come to associate with the roofing project.
“We heard some popping,” Wheatley said. “Smoke was blowing off the roof and I went out to check. When I came back in, smoke was billowing through the lights and vents.”
Wayne Steppe, who was operating the station’s FM equipment when the fire broke out, said he first noticed smoke coming in through air conditioning ducts in the small room.
The smoke quickly got thicker, forcing Steppe to leave abruptly.
“I wasn’t able to sign off or say anything, the smoke was getting so thick,” he said outside the station.
KXLY-AM news talk host Richard Clear was taking a call from a listener when he smelled smoke in the radio booth. “About that time I heard the roofers stomping on the roof,” Clear said. “I told the caller, ‘I’m going to have to cut you off now, there appears to be a fire here.’”
The fire was centered directly above the FM broadcast room, which adjoins the AM studio. New FM broadcasting equipment, which Steppe estimated cost between $200,000 to $300,000, had been installed within the past three weeks.
Clear and Steppe called the station’s receptionist, who used the building’s public address system to order an evacuation of an estimated 95 to 100 employees.
“They were out of there in no time flat,” said Steve Herling, vice president and general manager. No injuries were reported.
Although the fire was confined to the roof and a small portion of the second floor, damage from smoke and water was a major concern.
“The equipment is sensitive to smoke,” said TV news anchor Elaine Murphy. “They don’t allow people to smoke cigarettes around the equipment.”
Firefighters threw tarps over the equipment in the TV production and broadcast sections of the building.
Tom Agnew, general manager for the radio station, said the building’s power had to be turned off at about 2:20 p.m. before water could be sprayed on the fire. That knocked the TV and radio stations off the air. The TV signal was restored at 5 p.m. with an impromptu 40-minute newscast, and both radio stations were operating by 5 p.m.
Damage in the AM and FM booths would have to be determined before radio broadcasts would return to normal, said Doug Raper, the station’s radio news director.
Neither the AM or FM station broadcasts Monday night were able to include taped commercials or satellite-provided network news. “We haven’t found anything that’s not working, but the smoke is so bad in the rooms that I can’t say when we’ll get back in,” said Raper.
Agnew said he was the last person out of the radio offices, which at that point were filled with thick black smoke. “Smoke damage is a major concern,” he said.
Herling said the loss of advertising revenue from the station shutdown would total around $10,000. “I can’t tell you what the full economic impact will be,” Herling said.
Fire Chief Paul Olsen said the first alarm was called in at 2:22 p.m. and the second alarm came 10 minutes later. A third engine company was called in for extra manpower at 2:54 p.m.
In all, 42 firefighters and 11 fire rigs responded to the smoky blaze, visible from many parts of the city.
Murphy said that as she was heading down the South Hill at about 3 p.m., she noticed smoke and thought “There’s a fire in Riverfront Park.”
As she got closer, she said, she thought the fire was near KXLY. Then she quickly realized the fire was at KXLY.
Anchorwoman Karen Kelly opened the 11 p.m. newscast at KXLY studios with, “There’s a smoky smell here in the studio tonight.”
“It’s been a long day,” reflected Herling Monday night. “We were a very lucky group of people”
“The fire department told us in another 5 minutes we would’ve lost the whole building,” he said.
As it was, most of the delicate electronic equipment needed to put all three signals on the air appeared to have survived the fire, he said.
Most normal viewer and listener schedules, including network feeds, had been restored by the time the TV news crew went back on the air for its 11 p.m. newscast.
Staff writers David Bond and Tom Sowa contributed to this report.
Tuesday, June 14, 1988