Vincennes firefighters on Thursday battled not only a blaze but also the bitter cold as a massive fire, one that caused multiple explosions, spread quickly across Mischler’s garage, closing St. Clair Street for hours, leaving the Vincennes Community School Corp. scrambling for buses and local parents needing to find a different route to nearby Franklin Elementary School at pickup time.
Firefighters were first called to a report of a fire shortly before 1 p.m. When they arrived, they found Mischler’s garage, 1605 E. St. Clair St., fully engulfed in flames with rising, billowing smoke clouds visible for miles.
The fire worsened, too, during its first hour as firefighters and neighbors reported multiple explosions, ones likely caused by gasoline and propane tanks housed within the garage.
The space was used to store multiple vehicles owned by Mischler’s, among them school buses contracted for use by the Vincennes Community School Corp., moving trucks, semis and reportedly a collection of antique cars, too.
Greg Parsley, superintendent of the Vincennes Community School Corp., was on the scene shortly after the fire was reported and was left to then figure out how best to get kids home with three of their seven buses left in ruins.
P.W. Mischler, however, came to the rescue, Parsley said.
“We were able to get the other buses moved away from the fire, but we couldn’t gain access to them (Thursday) afternoon to get kids home,” he said. “We made do as (Mischler) had some extra buses at South Knox.
“Between his folks and our folks we were able to get everyone safely home.”
Parsley did, however, say officials within the VCSC discussed the fire’s proximity to nearby Franklin Elementary School. With so many neighbors reporting explosions, there was brief concern for the students’ safety.
Parsley, too, worried about the smoke as the wind was carrying it directly toward the elementary school.
“We talked about an early dismissal, but then we felt like it would be the worst thing we could do because emergency personnel were trying to get over to St. Clair,” Parsley said. “The timing was not great, so we decided the best thing we should do would be to stay and create a sense of normalcy at Franklin because the focus needed to be on getting emergency personnel in and out of there.
“We would have hindered that.”
To keep too much smoke from entering the building, Parsley said they closed the air handlers to keep outside air out.
He, too, discussed necessary steps with Vincennes Township Fire Department Chief Tim Smith should the smoke cause alarms at the school to activate.
Thankfully, Parsley said, that didn’t happen.
As for today, Parsley said he expects most parents and students won’t even see a hiccup in morning bus travel.
“We should be just fine. We’ve had two busses brought over to our own bus barn, and (Mischler) still has extras we can use,” he said. “We’ll figure it out.”
Parsley, too, commended Mischler and his family for coming to the VCSC’s aid amid one of their own darkest hours.
“The professionalism that they exhibited was very much appreciated,” Parsley said. “Even as their business was, quite literally, going up in flames, their focus, their priority, was focused on us as they knew we needed to get kids home safely.”
John Streeter, assistant chief of the Vincennes Fire Department, said crews were on site battling hot spots for hours.
There were no injuries reported as of 4 p.m. Thursday, he said.
The state fire marshal’s office arrived on scene Thursday evening to begin their investigation, but Streeter expected that to extend well into today, offering a bit of daylight to help.
“And they’ll need some time for the ice to melt away so they can pick stuff up, look at it,” Streeter said.
The bitter cold, too, made battling the blaze a bit harder for local firefighters — and in getting equipment back where it belonged.
“It becomes a safety issue for firefighters because, as you’re walking around, there is ice,” Streeter said. “We had drains plug up, so we had water everywhere. Some of the valves on the trucks froze, the nozzles. So we’re taking stuff apart so we can put it on trailers and take it back to headquarters, get it cleaned up and back together.”
Too, Streeter said another concern was that of standing oil in the area finding its way out into nearby ditches, thereby into the city’s storm water infrastructure.
They brought in booms, he said, in an attempt to catch the majority of it.
While the investigation is still preliminary, Streeter said he expects the garage and its contents to represent about an 80% loss.