Craig on fire

A look back at the destructive fire that hit downtown Jan. 23, 1978

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The Keith Gillam family recently donated a number of photographs to the Museum of Northwest Colorado from his career in the newspaper business.

Research completed at the museum on photographs taken by Gillam while employed at the Craig Daily Press has brought to light interesting stories about Craig and it's history.

Craig Fire/Rescue currently is in the process of replacing their aerial fire truck. The 30-year-old truck to be replaced had just arrived on the scene when the biggest fire to hit downtown Craig occurred.

This is a look back at that January 23, 1978, fire, which destroyed three businesses.

Their story

Garry Lippard remembers the downtown Craig fire in 1978 for several reasons. Two of those are due to separate explosions, which knocked him down both times.

It was 6:13 p.m. on January 23, 1978, when the call came in to the Craig Police Department. Fire sirens were sounded to call firemen to action.

Jim Meineke and Lippard responded to the fire in the attack truck, Lippard said.

About ten minutes after entering the burning building, an explosion blew Lippard and Chuck Ellsworth out into the street.

"Jim started beating me on the head," Lippard said. "I realized then that my hair was on fire."

Meineke remembers it being a very cold evening. The hoses froze.

"That was the biggest downtown fire I was ever on," he said. "Nothing compared to that."

The fire started in Betty's Carousel between the present Serendipity coffee shop and the Golden Cavvy restaurant on Yampa Avenue.

Carl Chapman, former fireman and chief, remembers leaving the Chevron gas station a couple of blocks away.

"When I turned the corner, I saw nothing but flames," he said.

Chapman and other firemen helped remove a woman from an apartment above the store next to the fire, he said.

"That night, we carried her out of her apartment above the office," Chapman said. "Then she disappeared, and we found her back in there."

After the first explosion, Lippard, an 11-year veteran of the department, climbed to the roof of Samuelson's Hardware with Fred Trouth to spray water on the fire. About 15 minutes later, a second explosion occurred.

"The roof went up and we fell back into the rubble," Lippard said. "I escaped into the alley, and Fred went out the front."

Lippard injured his knee and was sent to the hospital.

Chapman hooked tandem fire hoses from hydrants into the department's new Telesquirt aerial pumper truck.

"I was pushing 200 pounds per square inch into that truck," he said. "There were shoes floating down the street from the shoe store next door."

With a second building engulfed in flames, Chief Larry Jones considered using a front-end loader coming into town from the power plant to level the hardware store next door in an attempt to stop the fire, Chapman said.

The second explosion and roof collapse of the hardware store made that unnecessary.

Ice and water on the roof helped knock down the flames.

"Two guys were on the roof when the windows all blew out," Chapman said. "Flying glass cut all the fire hoses. It looked like Old Faithful."

Meineke had just come down off the ladder truck when the explosion occurred.

"It blew me into the truck. I had a brick jammed into my chest," Meineke said. "Ron Golden stuck an air hose in my mouth because I couldn't get my breath."

The fire was first contained about 1:30 a.m. but a flare-up occurred while firemen were servicing their equipment. An estimated 600,000 gallons of water was poured on the fire that night.

Chief Jones said the whole block could have been lost without the department's new engine pumping all night.

Arson charges were brought against Betty Keller, owner of Betty's Carousel, where the fire originated. Judge John Wilkinson later dismissed the charges against her.

Two dozen firefighters battled the blaze that night for seven hours. There still are scars on the aerial truck from that fire nearly 30 years ago.

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com.

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