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Memorial Service Recalls City Tragedy

Annual wreath-laying ceremony honors fallen and deceased firefighters.

Seven Alexandria firefighters lost their lives in one of the most devastating fires in the city's history and a subsequent investigation proved it was arson. It happened 150 years ago this coming Dec. 19.

Last Friday at Ivy Hill Cemetery, 2823 King St., the loss of those seven lives and seven others who gave their lives in the line of duty since 1850 were honored along with five members of the department who have died since last year's National Fire Prevention Week Memorial Service.

"This 35th wreath-laying ceremony honors all members of the department who have passed away over the years and specifically those that have passed away in the last year," said Alexandria Fire Chief Gary A. Mesaris.

He also read an account of the December 1855 fire and collapse of the building at 215-217 King St. which was published in The Alexandria Gazette two days after the tragedy. "A great calamity had happened and the sternest wept at the spectacle they were forced to behold. We have never known our whole community to be more deeply affected," the newspaper account stated.

It was a Friday night, about midnight, when "the city was alarmed by the cry of fire." Smoke and flames were coming from the third story of a large brick warehouse "occupied as a china store by J.T. Dowell."

According to the Gazette account, "Upon entering the house it was seen it had been deliberately fixed in several places — candles, wicks saturated with camphor and trains of gunpowder leading to the crates being found. The incendiary had prepared for a speedy and sure destruction of the building and its contents. He had left nothing undone to effect his full purpose."

After noting that adjoining buildings were practically unscathed while the contents of the destroyed warehouse were insured for an estimated $20,000 and the building itself for an additional $6,500, the news account stated, "And now, we have to record the most melancholy part of this sad affair" — the death of firefighters.

"About 4 o'clock, on Saturday morning, while the fire was raging in the upper part of Mr. Dowell's store, a large number of citizens, several of them members of the Star Fire Company, were at work in the interior assisting in attempting to extinguish the flames. At this moment the west gable wall of the warehouse fell in ... killing seven of our valued and respected citizens and wounding several others," Mesaris read to the Memorial Service audience.

THOSE WHO DIED in that pre-dawn tragedy were David Appich, George Plain, Robert I. Taylor, John A. Roach, James W. Keene, William S. Evans and J. Carson Green. Each of their names is inscribed on the nozzle of the fire hose found in the debris.

That nozzle and a painting depicting the fire were on display at Friday's ceremony. The painting, done by retired Battalion Chief Byron McBride, has been donated to the department and will hang in Station 204 along with other memorabilia of the department's history, according to Mesaris. The nozzle has long been a part of that collection.

Although the Fireman's Memorial, located just inside in the cemetery entrance, was dedicated in November 1856, one year after the fire and five months after the cemetery opened, none of those killed in that blaze is buried at Ivy Hill. Evans, Keene, Plain and Taylor are buried in Methodist Protestant Cemetery. Appich is buried at Presbyterian Cemetery, Roach at St. Mary's Cemetery and Carson at Christ Church Cemetery.

In addition to the wreath-laying by Mesaris and Jay Johnson, president, Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department, the ceremony included the placement of a red rose in a horn for each department member who has died in the line of duty. Those were accompanied by a white rose for each departmental member who passed away in the last year.

Each rose was carried by a retired member of the department accompanied by a representative of neighboring departments throughout the area. A bell sounded as each flower was inserted into the ceremonial horn held by Battalion Chief Chet Helms.

"THIS IS A VERY important event for us and the city each year. Fortunately, there were no lives lost in the line of duty in Alexandria this past year. But, there were 117 lost in the line of duty nationwide," said Brian Hricik, departmental EMS training coordinator, in announcing the names of the deceased.

Those who passed away in the last year were Bruce Melvin Beck, John Earhart, Melvin Harrington, Richard E. LaRock and Ashton N. "Mike" McKenney. The other seven who died in the line of duty over the years were Charles Glasscock, 1850; George W. Petty, 1911; George Whalen, 1925; Walter Beck, 1951; Leo E. Moore, 1958; Roger Welker, 1965; and Harry Moss, 1975.

Serving as master of ceremonies for the event was Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Robert Luckett. In addition to Mesaris and Hricik, he was joined in presentations by the Rev. Carla Thompson, Meade Memorial Episcopal Church, who gave the invocation and benediction; Callie M. Terrell, fire chief's administrative assistant, who sang several a cappella selections; Mary Bryant, retired deputy fire marshal/code enforcement supervisor, reading the Roll Call of The Fallen; firefighter Matthew Craig, playing taps; and the department's Ceremonial Unit serving as honor and color guard.

Also attending were a variety of city elected leaders and officials. Following the ceremony a luncheon was held at Alexandria First Baptist Church.