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Local man dies in Divide Road fire

Flames engulf a four-unit apartment complex at 1768 Divide Road in Mountain City. It took nearly two hours for local volunteer firefighters before extinguishing the flames and discovering a local resident deceased inside one of the units. Photo by Nancie Svensen

By Tamas Mondovics

Volunteer firefighters from within city limits and across the county responded to a Johnson County E-911 call reporting a structure fire at an apartment building at 1768 Divide Road just north of Mountain City, TN last Sunday, March 15. The call came in a few minutes after 4 p.m., prompting sirens to disrupt the routinely quiet small town afternoon lull.

It took nearly two hours to bring the flames under control. Sadly, the fire completely destroyed the four-unit apartment complex leaving first responders to discover a 67-year-old male deceased in one of the residences. Witnesses said there was possibly a male still inside the residence. After the fire was fully extinguished and entry was made into the residence, first responders found Donald Jernigan of Mountain City, deceased inside. From the scene, a female patient was transferred to the Johnson City Medical Center.

According to officials, upon arrival of emergency personnel including Johnson County Sheriff, Eddie Tester, along with a number of his deputies, as well as volunteer firefighters representing every county fire department and the Mountain City Fire Department, it was determined the apartment building was fully engulfed.

“We had trucks from every department ready to fight this fire,” Tester said, adding that all four apartments within the building were destroyed due to fire and water damage.

Tester emphasized that two-three tanker trucks were on hand to transport water to the scene from a fire hydrant located less than a quarter-mile away on Divide Road to assist firefighters in their efforts to put out the flames.

“We had a constant flow of water thanks to the truck going back and forth, hauling water from the hydrant,” he said.

Witnesses on hand described the scene, adding that not being able to help was difficult to take.

“I saw white smoke in the air from behind trees,” said nearby neighbor Nancie Svensen. “Didn’t think much about it at first. A neighbor told me they were watching TV and heard thunder. Being a bit of a rainy day, they didn’t think much of that either at first. The smoke stayed white but got much more significant, so I headed out to see what was going on.”

By the time Svensen got close to the scene, first responders were already battling the fire that had engulfed the entire structure.

“Without fire hydrants, there was limited fire suppression at first,” Svensen said. “Eventually, the pop-up pool was set up, and tankers kept coming in to keep it full.”

No foul play is suspected, but the structure fire is still under investigation at this time.