A fiery night: The CLB Fire, by Joe Gibbons

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How times have changed since when I first stepped in through the doors of the then, "The Evening Telegram," on that Sunday night in September 1987 not having a clue how to use a news camera let alone take a news related photo. 

So for my first entry into this wide-world of social media blogging, I'd talk about the longest two days and nights of my working life thus far.

And those are the dates of Monday, December 21, 1992 and Tuesday, December 22, 1992.

For that was the night of the now infamous Harvey Road fire, or as everyone refers to it still 21 years later as the CLB Fire.

I went to work that Monday morning for the day shift and after work, went down to the Y for a workout (much slimmer and in better shape then than now) and headed home about 7:30 or so driving up over Military Road enroute to my Rabbittown home.

Reflecting back now with the help of my aging braincells, as I made the turn at the Basilica church to go on up over Bonaventure Avenue, there was an RNC patrol car blocking access onto Harvey Road. Thinking it to be just another MVA up at the Long's Hill/Freshwater Road/Parade Street intersection and just passed it off and went on my merry way.

But that soon changed as I got in through the door when then Tely scribe Brett Loney called me at home just after 8 o'clock that night and said there was a fire out at the CLB Armoury on Harvey Road and I grabbed my camera gear and headed out there.

Living close by, I arrived there a few minutes after and there wasn't any visible smoke or fire to be seen. I got a few photographs of firefighters putting on their breathing apparatus to go inside and check it out. Looking at the picture in the paper, I believe they were firefighters Tony Renouf and Stirling Willis, now a current fire captain and a retired firefighter (and Paradise town councillor) respectively.

Once the doors were opened by the firefighters to enter the Armoury, a different story was soon to unfold as the fresh air got at the fire inside and fuelled it with oxygen, and what a busy night I would be in for.

The fire got going and got going it did. The CLB was very soon engulfed in flames and despite their very valiant effort, the very great firefighters of St. John's Regional Fire Department (SJRFD) were losing their big battle with the winds in the quickly spreading fire. The firefighters began to battle it from the roof of the Dominion Supermarket on Parade Street before having to retract back down once the propane tanks exploded. Then they just had to go on the offensive from the Dominion parking lot and Harvey Road. I think one of them was now Capt. Zane Forbes of St. John's Blue Caps senior hockey fame of yesteryear.     

I remember also standing on the side exterior patio of the RNC building in Fort Townshend shortly after, watching the enormous fire balls just rolling through the basement of the two big yellow provincial government social services buildings, on the back where Tim Horton's now is, as they went up in flames along with the adjacent Capitol Taxi. Man, that was a wild sight to say the least and I can picture it now as I write this, hearing the wild flames just going so ferociously through the building, peering in through the windows.

It was time to call in the reinforcements and more and more firefighters began arriving and equipment from all the fire city stations and even those off duty were called in through a provincewide broadcast over the airwaves and on TV.

As the night wore on, yours truly was put through the paces trying to capture all possible angles of the raging inferno. It could be seen all over the city and the downtown core especially, with those upon on Signal Hill watching and motorists heading east towards the downtown on Pitt's Memorial Drive. There were photos gathered on Harvey Road, LeMarchant Road, Long's Hill, and from where The Rooms' parking lot is now too, as the heat was sometimes too unbearable to get too close.  

Eventually the fire began jumping across Harvey Road and igniting the businesses there and that's when, to use an old cliché, "all hell broke loose." I recall being stood up by the then Kwik-Way store on the corner (now Long's Hill Convenience) when myself and other media folks were covering the fire from and it was only moments after when then RNC Supt. Gary Browne moved us to another location, out popped the big pane glass windows. Luck was on our side there at that moment that's for sure.

Picturing it now, the Big R got going along with Johnny's Restaurant and Take Out eventually taking out Bert's House of Styling, Rock and Leather, Ziggy Peelgood's, Roma Pizzeria, Acropolis Restaurant, Escape Hatch. On the far end was Gin's Restaurant that received moderate damage, but still stands in its location to this very day. But it was the many great flaming memories I had of night's spent at Finnegan's Pub (later to become the Rock and Leather) that were also lost in the fire, figuratively.

Back in those days, we were still shooting with film for The Telegram as there was no digital photography, or Twitter or websites or iPhones to send back pictures for the web.

At one point while stood inside Scamper's on LeMarchant Road to get a bit of heat along with some firefighters getting a quick drink of coffee, I had to call into work to get some more film sent out to me and while waiting, darted home in the car to get some warmer clothes on and recall then the late great VOCM's George McLaren and then on-the-spot news reporter Carl Lake discussing the fire on VOCM Night Line before beating it back out over Newtown Road and parking my car on Jane's Ultramar parking lot on the corner of Newtown and Merrymeeting. Talk about getting clothes on quickly and rushing back to work for fear of missing a good photo.

As the night progressed, Dominion and all of the business section of Harvey Road and the rear of the buildings backing onto Long's Hill was just one great big ball of a fire inferno. City officials had the front-end loaders and backhoes with their big shovel buckets on stand-by, ready to bulldoze the homes on the west side of the Hill in case the fire jumped further. At the time, one of my sisters lived on Queen's Road and the cinders from the fire were blowing onto her home, but thankfully the cold December air and jet protruding water from the hoses towards downtown blowing with the wind prevented any further damage to downtown homes.

At one point, around 1-ish I guess, I got a call from the newsroom saying the news agencies on the mainland of Canada and those in the United States and around the world were calling looking for photos of the inferno. We had to have a cab drop by and carry film back to The Tely to be processed for the editorial desk. I said I couldn't go yet as Dominion was just beginning to go up in flames then and I had to get photos of that.

I am not one to be fascinated by the sight of fire, but man, the adrenalin was just flowing at what I was covering as it was just like a movie on TV. This was history in the making for sure and wanted to grab what photos I could get that night.

Back then, we processed our own film, and it was time consuming. It was just one night of mayhem both at the fire scene to capture the scenes and at work trying to get the Tuesday paper out.     

Thanks to former SJRFD fire-inspector Paul Sears, he was able to "sneak" me onto Harvey Road about 3:30 in the morning and literally I was walking on the glowing ashes on the blacktop to take photographs of the burning businesses. Yes, I was crazy I s'pose to do that, but hey, when the opportunity arose, I jumped at the occasion, and got the photos. Thinking back now I must've been nuts to do that but sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. (It's OK to say that now Paul I guess. You're retired!)

So to jump ahead a bit, it was now approaching 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning and I had to head back to work with what I had gotten. There wasn't much else to get I guess at that point as the fire was somewhat dying down from its ferocity and firefighters appeared to be be getting the upper hand on it as daylight was approaching.

Once I got back to work, there was a full compliment of newsroom staff there, even then co-worker Tracy Barron who lived on Long's Hill who at one point, with no power in the area, had to get firefighters smash in her door and use their helmet pilot lights to bring her to her apartment to get some personal belongings and her car keys and move it from the top of Long's Hill, despite the ice on it from the fire hoses' spray.

Eventually, I got home around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday morning for a few hours shut-eye before heading back to work around mid-afternoon to prepare photos for Wednesday's follow-up stories and the few days thereafter. Even when working over the Christmas holidays that year, firefighters were still pouring water into Dominion over the smouldering fire pockets.

To look at the scene the morning after, it was wild to the naked eye as all that was left standing was the archway of the CLB Armoury, that was later incorporated into its rebuilding.

Mudder was poisoned, though, as that Saturday prior to the fire, I took her out there to order her turkey for Christmas dinner to pick-up on the 23rd of December to thaw out for the Christmas Day grub job, but I guess by then it was well thawed and cooked in the supermarket basement.

On a personal note, it was good to cover a part of history for The Evening Telegram, but unfortunately it had to come with such devastation and millions and millions of dollars in damage and property losses. But fortunately there were no lives lost or from what I believe, there weren't any serious injuries reported to the SJRFD folks, who all worked their darndest that night and morning putting out 150 per cent efforts at doing what they do best.

It was also my first forray into entering my work in journalism awards and the coverage of the Harvey Road fire won myself and the newsroom a Thomson News Papers Award of Excellence and my first Atlantic Journalism Awards (AJA) "GOLD" Award for spot-news photography. I was very surprised as that year, photos were entered from the Westray Mine Disaster and McDonald's Massacre which occurred in Nova Scotia in 1992 as well, big news for up there in Bluenose county.

So all the photographs taken that night on the 16 rolls of 36-exposure colour film I shot were well worth the effort. So to then began my specialty of spot news photography for many years to come and now being known as The Telegram's resident "fire expert", as penned by some, and The Tely's spot-news go-to guy.

And to all the great men and women of SJRFD, great job that night folks of battling the Great Fire of 1992, a hundred years after the Great Fire of 1892. Don't think I will be around for the Great Fire of 2092.

Any feedback greatly appreciated by friends or foes. Hope you enjoyed my first social media entrance. OMG

Jgibbons@thetelegram.com

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Recent comments

  • Mike Ryan
    October 13, 2013 - 21:26

    Great work Joe! Every time we had a visiting VIP ; there you were at any hour of the day or night! All best to you, ...Mike

  • Brett Loney
    June 28, 2013 - 14:54

    A great job of shooting that night and a great intro in the world of blogging, Joe. All the best.

  • Fred
    June 27, 2013 - 07:16

    Great story Joe!! It has been my pleasure to work with you. You are a classy guy and a fantastic photographer! Great work!!!

  • Paddy McC
    June 24, 2013 - 22:07

    Nice blog joe b'y!!! Remembers it like y'day...

  • steve marshall
    June 21, 2013 - 23:36

    great job Joe...then and now.. Thankfully nobody was injured or killed that terrible night. It was three years ago last week that our law offices on Duckworth Street burned down and ironically we immediately located to the Paramount Building right next door to the rebuilt CLB Armory.....Cheers, Steve