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Fatal 2020 fire offers solemn safety preparation reminder

By Tate Davis
Freelance Writer

“Are tall.” Autocorrected words from a text message Tonya Townsend never finished typing. She vividly recalls hearing sirens in the afternoon on Sunday, March 15, 2020. “I turned on my scanner. I had a gut feeling. I was texting Barbara, ‘Are y’all OK?’ when I heard the address. I went up there. As soon as I got around the curve, I saw the flames. I saw the smoke and fire trucks. It was a sight I would never imagine. It’s hard to explain.” Townsend pauses, softly confiding, “It still gives me cold chills talking about it now.”
While our mountains offer gorgeous wintry scenes when temperatures drop, the change of season often brings an unwelcome visitor: structure fire. National Fire Incident Reporting System data
from 2019 shows 86.4 percent of fire casualties across
Tennessee come from structure fires, the vast majority homes.
Johnson County Emergency Management Director Jason Blevins recently posted tips from the National Fire Protection Association on the agency’s Facebook page. These include maintaining a three-foot safety zone around heat sources, performing annual maintenance on heating equipment and chimneys, and regularly inspecting smoke detectors.
Prevention tips offer little once fire strikes. The March 2020 fire on Divide Road killed 67-year-old Donald “Keith” Jernigan and severely injured Barbara Usry.
“I knew Barbara and Keith were in there,” Townsend said. “I knew my dogs were inside. I was still in my dress from church. I took my shoes off and just ran up. I saw Sheriff Eddie Tester. He knew I stayed there with them.”
Tester stopped Townsend and tried calming her. “They set me in a truck because I was having a panic attack. There was nothing really left. Everything else was…” Her voice trails off. “It traumatized me. Still to this day.”
Townsend remembers her friend Barbara Usry talking about the moments when the fire erupted. Usry was asleep and awakened to Keith yelling, “Help, help. Barbara, help!” Usry saw flames rising from both sides of Jernigan’s hospital bed. His legs were burning, and when she made it into his room, the line from his oxygen tank was melting. Usry told Townsend she “yanked the line off” and was able to get Jernigan to her room, where the two lost precious seconds unsuccessfully struggling to pull the pin to activate their fire extinguisher. The elderly woman got their dogs out the apartment door but lost contact with Jernigan. She told Townsend she tried yelling and feeling around for him in blinding black smoke. A neighbor grabbed Usry when she returned to the door and carried her to safety. Usry almost didn’t get out of the house herself.
“The firefighters were excellent. The American Red Cross was there. The community really steps up when something like this happens. You realize how good Johnson County people are.”
Townsend hopes sharing her experience will help others. “People need to get out their fire extinguishers. Check them. Make sure everyone in the house knows how to use them. Make sure your fire extinguishers are up to date. Check the smoke detectors. Always have an escape plan.”
Barbara Usry died on August 13, 2020. Townsend says she passed from complications of smoke inhalation suffered in the fire.
“She never even got her insurance,” Townsend said.
Nor the tragic fire. Townsend’s dog, Ziggy, survived but went missing for fourteen days and still suffers vision problems attributable to the smoke. She will never forget her best friend and their laughter.