On the afternoon of March 17, 1890, Indianapolis firefighters were called to the Bowen-Merrill Bookstore on West Washington Street to deal with what appeared to be a routine fire. Instead, it became a major catastrophe, claiming the lives of more firefighters than any other incident in Indianapolis history.
The call came at approximately 3 p.m. from employees at the bookstore who had seen smoke. Firefighters arrived at the scene and believed the situation to be relatively safe, with the fire contained to the basement of the building. Because of the flammable contents of the store, firefighters stayed on the scene to make sure the fire was extinguished. A few hours later, however, flames were seen coming from windows in the upper stories.
A number of firefighters stationed themselves on top of the building, while others entered the four-story building through upper windows. Without warning the walls collapsed, dropping many firefighters into the flames. Thirteen firefighters lost their lives, and more than a dozen were seriously injured.
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