March 30, 2013

Firefighters remember tragic accident

Rachel Brown

— Forty-nine years ago this weekend, three Dalton firefighters lost their lives fighting a structure fire, and another, whose body was brutally broken, is still alive to tell about it.

On Friday, a dozen or so Dalton Fire Department personnel as well as a handful of community members gathered to remember the tragedy and the three men who lost their lives trying to put out the blaze at Commercial Mills. The business was where the Providence Ministries building on Hamilton Street now stands.

In the early hours of March 30, 1964, the building was fully engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived. The roof caved in. The wind blew hard.

“Then the unthinkable happened,” Chief Bruce Satterfield told those gathered at Station One for the memorial service. “Probably the gusty winds caused the wall to fall with firefighters being trapped under the wall.”

Lt. Charles “Chigger” Joyce, 38, and firefighters Johnnie Wofford, 38, and John Earl Ingle, 23, were killed. Raymond “Shag” Phelps was buried under the rubble but survived. He had more than 70 broken bones.

Phelps, who was honored at the service, recalled spending more than three months in what is now Hamilton Medical Center before he was well enough to go home. He spent years in physical therapy at Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga.

Then he went back to work. Phelps spent most of his career as a dispatcher, but he said he also went out on calls when someone was hurt. He said he was honored to be recognized in the ceremony.

Satterfield said Engle, Joyce and Wofford are the only Dalton firefighters killed in the line of duty. Their names are inscribed on a granite monument at the fire station where firefighters laid a wreath in remembrance Friday afternoon.

“Our goal is to never — hopefully never — have to put another name on this wall,” Satterfield said.