Columbia Crematory Burns to the Ground

Firefighters battled into the night to contain a blaze that ripped through Williams Funeral Home. Crews responded to the Columbia funeral home at 2517 Trotwood Ave. about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Columbia Fire Chief Lee Bergeron said personnel arrived on the scene within three minutes of the initial call. No one was injured. Bergeron declined to speculate on the cause of the fire, but he said it started on the left side of the building in and around an exhaust system. He said he was unsure whether that side of the building houses the crematory. The fire chief said occupants were in the funeral home when the fire started, including a firefighter’s family who was making funeral arrangements for the responder’s mother. He said patrons smelled smoke but initially attributed it to normal funeral home operations. “By the time we got the call, the fire had a healthy head start,” Bergeron said. Bodies covered with tarps were seen to the side of the building, apparently removed from the burning funeral home by crematory workers as firefighters responded. A unidentified bystander at the scene said he heard an explosion come from the building. Next-door neighbors said they didn’t hear anything but saw flames. Bergeron said a nearby gas line posed an additional threat as the flames caused reactive explosions inside the building, hindering efforts to extinguish the blaze.An eyewitness, who asked not to be identified, drove by the funeral home about 6:15 p.m. and saw black smoke and flames coming from what she described as the crematory side of the facility. An hour later, the fire spread across the attic to the sanctuary part of the building, Bergeron said. “The funeral home has served thousands of families over the years (and) has very deep ties in the community,” Maury County Rural Fire Chief Mark Gandee said during a press conference held Tuesday night. Traffic was backed up along Trotwood Avenue toward the Neely’s Mill shopping center. About 100 bystanders watched from the roadway, nearby houses and businesses as flames engulfed the building. More than 50 firefighters from the Columbia Fire Department, Maury County Fire Department and Mynders Volunteer Fire Department contributed in battling the blaze. An area Red Cross response team also was on the scene. Firefighters used aerial ladders in an attempt to extinguish the blaze from two separate fire engines — one of which has only been in use for about a week.“Without the (new) equipment, the fire could have jumped from building to building,” Bergeron said. Columbia Fire Marshal Anthony Davis said he would conduct a more thorough inspection Wednesday with the state fire marshal and Columbia police detectives. “Right now, we’re in preservation mode for the family that owns it … trying to save as many records and documents from the basement as we can,” Bergeron said during the press conference. The facility’s owners did not immediately release a statement. A woman who arrived in a Williams Funeral Home van declined to comment as she wept uncontrollably. The building was constructed in 1962. It was originally built as a house but was modified over the years to fit the business’ needs when it expanded from Mt. Pleasant to Columbia, according to Maury County Archives Director Bob Duncan. Notes of sympathy were posted on the Williams Funeral Home Facebook page. “We are greatly saddened by tonight’s event, as is the whole community. God Bless you all,” Melena Keeling wrote. – See more at:

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