Employees of Paul's Inc., 525 N. Lancaster in Hesston, thought they smelled smoke — and found a fire contained in a wall at about 1:30 p.m. March 5. They grabbed some fire extinguishers and a hose and began to try and put out the fire.
One of the five or so workers called 911. And they thought they about had it under control when they were told to get out of the building.
Two hours later they were on the street, telling their story to the media. Everyone got out of the building OK, even as the fire continued to bellow thick, black smoke. The smoke plume could be seen from Newton, about eight miles away
The building is constructed of concrete. Paul's is owned by Paul Burckhart of Hesston. The business is more than 50 years old. Paul's shares a the building with Dreier's Lawn Irrigation and Hardscapes.
"There was a stud-built office in the back of the building, an office for Dreier's and nobody was there," said Elbert Swartzendruber, a Paul's employee. "There were five of us at Pauls. I had gone back to the shop and saw all the smoke back there. I went back, opened the door and shouted t them to call the fire department. I went back, and we had the flames knocked down. If I had just been two minutes earlier ... The smoke was so thick I could not see."
They left the building, and fire departments from Hesston and Newton arrived to begin fighting the fire.
As observers watched, fire crews worked on fire suppression as drones flew overhead to help direct the effort. The fire nibbled away at the west side of the building, working its way east. Every now and then a small explosion could be heard.
"There are small gasoline tanks for small engines and things like that ", said Russ Buller, Hesston fire chief. "That is possibly what is going on with those small pops. There are also small propane tanks as well that are used for forklifts."
At about 4 p.m., more than two and a half hours after the fire began, Buller estimated that the fire was about half contained.
Swartzendruber was talking with his coworkers about nearly $500 in new tools — many still in their packages — and the van they were in that he likely lot in the fire.
Buller said the structure of the building, namely it's primary construction of concrete, coupled with wall and roof collapses because of the high heat of the fire early on hindered the efforts of the firefighters.
Firefighters were also dealing with cold temperatures, with windchills dipping to about 10 degrees.
"Obviously the cold temperatures offer some challenges to firefighting," Buller said. "Luckily our protective gear offers quite a bit of warmth in this situation. We do and try and cycle our staff through our rehabilitation vehicle here as well."