The alarm sounded shortly before midnight on December 2, 1984, summoning the men of the Jacksonville Fire Department to the grocery store, North Jacksonville Foods, located on North Main Street, for smoke coming from the window. What came in as a routine fire is still described by many as the worst fire in the department’s history. Kelly Hall was a firefighter for the department. Relatively new to the Jacksonville Fire Department, he started in October 1981, but Hall wasn’t a stranger to fire services. A graduate of Jacksonville High School, he joined the 183rd Tactical Fighter Wing in 1978 and was a certified firefighter 3 when he was hired by Jacksonville Fire Department. Being a fireman was a dream for Hall, hoping to be one “for as long as I can remember,” he says. He explained that he joined the guard specifically to get certifications that would help him get on with the Jacksonville Fire Department. So the late night fire on December 2nd was something that wouldn’t cause concern for Hall. He explained that the group of eight men responded and found a fully involved (fire, heat and smoke in a structure are widespread) structure fire. The blaze was burning fiercely. Hall’s group was assigned to cut a hole in the back of the building and take a hose line into the building. It didn’t take the group of Hall, Floyd Anthony and Mark Hopkins (under the command of Captain Harry Coop) long to realize they were not going to be able to alter the outcome of the rolling fire. Hall said, “It just kept rolling, we knew it was time to call everyone out of the building.” Meanwhile the glass in the front of the building was broken causing a backdraft that caught the men by surprise and brought the fire on top of them. “We were trying to crawl out when it all blew up around us,” Hall explained. “There was no visibility, but at a fire, as long as you are holding on to the hose you will be okay, you just follow it back out.” The blast blew his helmet off and he felt his head starting to burn. He explained that the number one rule in firefighting is to not let go of the hose. He still isn’t sure what happened, what he heard that made him go back and turn away from the hose, but his hand let go as he searched for his fellow firefighters. Everything around him was glowing orange and the visibility was such that he wasn’t able to see his own hand in front of him. He didn’t hear his friends any longer and he felt himself falling on bread baskets and tangled grocery store items. He finally stumbled and began to believe that this would be how his life would end. He explained that he knew it was the end, so he just sat down to try and calm himself in preparation for his death. As he sat, though, he realized he was on the hose. Unsure of which way the hose was going, he crawled until he felt a coupling which then helped him to find his way out. When he came out of the building, he was on fire and he remembers being hosed off by another firefighter. Jacksonville Policeman John Lael took him to his squad car and drove him to Passavant Hospital. After approximately 30 minutes, he was transported to the burn unit at Memorial Medical Center. He remembers his brother, Monte Hall, was dispatching for the police department during the fire. He remembers learning that his coworkers, Hopkins and Anthony, were also pulled from the fire.
Hall ended up suffering from full thickness burns to his neck, head, ears, wrists and knees. He spent the next four weeks at the burn unit where he underwent major skin graft operations and began a painful regimen of physical therapy and dibriedment that continued for weeks after the fire. He was released for Christmas after his wife Judy took classes to give him the debridement baths at home. He remembers the pain – “agony beyond description,” and a child that was in the burn unit while he was there, “that little kid cried a lot, I will never forget it … “He laughed a bit when he explained he wouldn’t have made it without the help of Judy taking care of him and their families helping with their twins who were two at that time. “I am still not sure how she did it,” he says. He still is touched by all that the members of the Jacksonville Fire Department did for his family while he was in the hospital, including setting up a gas account at Wareco for his wife to use to pay the gas bills of driving back and forth to the hospital in Springfield to see him. “There were so many nice people that did such amazing things for us.“
His doctors offered him the option of disability, but Hall didn’t accept that. “Was I just going to sit around for the rest of my life? I was 25 years old.” It was important to him to get off of the pain medicine and get on with his life. He returned to work that summer, approximately six months after the fire. He believed he was able to do his job in spite of what had happened in December. After the accident, the City Council approved Nomex gloves and hoods for the members of the Jacksonville Fire Department, along with more advanced safety equipment.
In 1990, Hall was offered the job as the City Inspector. While it was a difficult decision, he said it was the right one for his family. He and Judy then had three girls and the job allowed him the opportunity to work a Monday through Friday day shift. Part of his decision was based on knowing that in that position he could continue to help through fire prevention in his job, such as making sure the structures in the community were safe for firefighters and met the fire standards. He admitted with a faraway look in his eye that he still had days where he missed being a fireman. Hall doesn’t want to talk about the fire; he believes there isn’t anything heroic about running into a burning building or running out of one on fire. Hopkins retired from the Jacksonville Fire Department as a Captain, Mr. Anthony left the fire services a year after the North Jacksonville Foods fire. Hall, who continues to work for the City of Jacksonville as the City Inspector, remembers the fire like it was yesterday, he doesn’t feel special, just acknowledges, “it was just one of those things that happened.”