The Great Gary Arson Of 1997 (Part 1)

GFD fighting blaze at Goldblatt’s department store. 10.12.1997.


he night of October 12, 1997, I was 11 years old. My little brother and I were staying with our grandparents. We lived by the South Shore train tracks. Being used to the trains, we could sleep right through their rumbling and horn blowing. In fact, in a weird way, it was soothing. However on this night, something else woke me up around midnight. It was a subtle thing…a high-rolling roar. I knew the wind was blowing, but this wasn’t the usual wailing of air blowing past our house. It sounded more like a creature howling in the distance. My grandfather worked at Gary Works — and that was to our north. It wasn’t unusual to see and hear weird things from that direction. Yet this ‘roar’ was coming from the east.

I sat up and saw a faint orange-red glow softly illuminating my window. My brother remained peacefully asleep. I got out my bed and went to the window, pulling open the curtains. The clouds were rolling very fast south-to-north…softly illuminated from the bottom with this orange-red tint. I noticed how close it seemed…like it was originating from downtown. I couldn’t see anything else — just hearing a roar and seeing a concentrated glow. Again — it’s not unusual to see an orange glow under the clouds at night. Lights of the city illuminated clouds whenever they packed together. Yet this glow was different. It outdid any glow I had ever seen previously. It was deep, saturated and scary…like a hellscape.

I left the bedroom and knocked on my grandmother’s door. She answered, asking why I was out of bed. I directed her towards the weird activity I saw outside. She peeked through the curtains in our room and — for a long while — stared into the sky. My grandmother wasn’t sure what she was looking at but told me not to worry about it and go back to sleep because I had school in the morning. As she said this, soft, distant blares of emergency sirens lifted through the roar into our ears. The sirens were non-stop.
Go to sleep? How?

October 12, 1997.
737 Broadway. 11:30 P.M.

Photo of the 700 block of Broadway in 1993. Greg Jenkins.

one knows how or why — but around 11:30pm — a small fire began smoldering behind or inside of a Broadway storefront. This building sat immediately north of Broadway Shopping Mall — which stands abandoned at 737 Broadway. At this point, the fire was not burning at that address — yet behind a store-front adjacent to it — in the alley. A few witnesses who drove past Broadway Shopping Mall that night phoned Gary Fire Department to report a small-to-medium sized fire burning behind it. About that same time, winds were blowing from due south at 23 mph; with 31mph gusts randomly tearing through the streets. In situations like this small fires can become very dangerous very fast.

737 Broadway.

737 Broadway was once home to S. S. Kresge Co. Kresge's was a chain of department stores popular in the Midwest and on the east coast up until it became Kmart in 1977. My grandfather told me tales of him enjoying the wide assortment of snacks they had at this store when he was a child. In 1997 the building was owned by Hyong Kim. Kim was a Korean businessman who owned a number of different outlets in the Chicagoland area. It is unknown if he renamed the building ‘Broadway Shopping Mall’ but it operated with that name under his ownership. There will be more regarding Mr. Kim in subsequent writeups.

By time first responding firefighters arrived, a second building adjacent to Broadway Shopping Mall was just beginning to flare up. Because of the winds, both structures quickly became engulfed in flame. Then a third structure went up! The fire was spreading quickly before their eyes. There was no intermediate period of stagnation nor a climatic, slow upstaging of circumstances— small fire turned to big fire in a matter of minutes. The structures burned hot and fast — sending bellowing, caustic smoke into the air. The smoke was promptly carried downwind towards 5th & Broadway. There — for some reason — the smoke and fumes collected, turning that intersection so dark, streetlights could not be seen. The intersection was blocked off by police.

Firefighters battling flames at three storefronts near the point of origin. Notice proximity to Broadway Shopping Mall and how winds are keeping most of the flames off of that building.

The extremely high winds created something called a ‘wind-driven fire situation’. Wind-driven fires are usually created when winds are sustained at approximately 20mph or above. The below simulation shows what happens when a fire erupts in a small room with an open window.

You can see in this NIST simulation just how quickly (2 minutes) a wind-driven fire can consume a small room and destroy everything in its wake. View the temperature readings getting hotter and hotter by the second. Imagine this — but on a scale of a city block. This was a major fire!

Below is another fire fought by GFD publically provided on YouTube by user ‘@mbas21’. You can see this garage — full of chemicals and other materials; as well as entire vehicles — can turn a small fire into an unstoppable force when faced with high wind conditions. Upscale this to an entire city block and you can see how much of a challenge firefighters were faced with.

Monday, October 13, 1997. Midnight.
645 Broadway.

ther fire brigades arrived just as the second floor of Goldblatt’s began to burn down the street. Goldblatt’s Department Store — closed since 1973 — went up in flames. Assistant Fire Chief Gregory Melyon indicated the preliminary investigation pointed towards the fire being intentionally set on the second floor of the abandoned department store. GFD called an extra alarm fire — requiring assistance of all available apparatus from surrounding communities. Some communities that answered the call were Hammond, East Chicago, Merrillville, Hobart and other local volunteer fire departments. The spread of the fires accelerated, jumping to random locations even as more firefighters arrived.

Goldblatt’s Storefront. 1987. Looking southeast. Radigan Bros Furniture to the north (left).

It wasn’t long before the entire Goldblatt’s facility was buring like a torch. The Goldblatt’s facility consisted of two buildings — one located on Broadway and the second (connected to the first via air bridge) located on Massachusetts Street — behind the Broadway storefront. Both Goldblatt’s structures caught fire, but the main storefront — older than the second building by 20 years and mostly built with wooden supports — burned straight to the ground as the night progressed.

Embers and smoke from behind Broadway Shopping Mall and Goldblatt’s were carried downwind, potentially sparking other storefront fires that ignited on and around 6th & Broadway. These new fires confused everyone because they popped up where — allegedly — they shouldn’t have considering the direction of the winds. In midst of the chaos, firemen discovered something they did not want to ever see — fire burning the roof of historic Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium.

Gary Memorial Auditorium

700 Massachusetts Street.

ocated on the southwest corner of 7th and Massachusetts Street, the four-story Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium was built as a memorial to those who died in WWI. Built in 1927, it was made up of red brick, artificial brown stone, terra cotta and limestone. The front entrance had double-terraced stone steps and five arched entrances with grilled transoms. The original Memorial auditorium was of Venetian style. It was later upgraded to a more Missionary/Spanish Revival style. The interior was elaborately decorated, odd for such a large building that could seat upwards of 5,000 people.

It was a grand entertainment complex. President Harry Truman made a campaign speech there in 1948. It served as a concert hall for major American artists such as Frank Senatra. The auditorium served as a graduation venue for Gary Public Schools and hosted many basketball games, artistic expos and political events. It closed in 1971.

Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium in 1993. Photo taken by Greg Jenkins.

Now 26 years later, firefighters — some of whom grew up in Gary when Memorial Auditorium was in full swing — stood awed as, somehow, it too caught fire. First a corner of the roof burned — likely started by flying embers. The high winds further fueled its intensity. In a matter of minutes an entire west section of the roof was ablaze, flames licking wild in the October night. The furious inferno mercilessly consumed every square inch of flammable material in its way. Soon the entire roof of the historic building was ablaze, burning with finality. There are a few photos of GPS Memorial Auditorium immediately after it burned. I will show some below.

The fire was still smoldering and people were already scavenging the ruins of Memorial Auditorium.
GPS Memorial Auditorium the morning after. Point of origin of the entire fire is in this photo.
Early demolition of Memorial Auditorium. 1997. The job wouldn’t be finished until 2020.
Ruins of Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium after the fire during demolition.

Radigan Brothers Furniture

Fires sprouted next door (north) of Goldblatt’s — 637 Broadway. This was the former home of Radigan Brothers Furniture. Radigan’s was arguable one of Gary’s most successful furniture businesses. Joseph B. Radigan ran against former Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher as the Republican nominee in 1967. He lost that historic election. Radigan closed the doors of his furniture store in 1975 after the incorporation of Merrillville, Indiana and the subsequent loss of Gary businesses to Merrillville.

Storefront of Radigan Brothers Furniture during the 1950s.

The above photo shows the 600–700 blocks of Broadway in 1993. This photo, taken by Greg Jenkins, shows a better view of the buildings involved in the fire. Most of these buildings were lost four years after this picture was taken.

The above photograph shows the 600-700 blocks of Broadway (and partially Massachusetts Street) the morning after the conflagration. The path of the inferno can almost be traced from Broadway Shopping Mall to Radigan Brothers.

Also, you can see how it seems some buildings were ‘skipped’…especially between Memorial and Goldblatt’s. This further lent credence to the theory that some fires were not just simply ‘wind driven’ but intentionally set. Also, keep in mind, firefighters were not only tasked with fighting fires but also attempting to ‘save’ some buildings. It is hard to discern which buildings were ‘saved’ and which were simply not touched by flames that night.

The above photo is the second building of the Goldblatt’s facility, around the block on Massachusetts Street. This was also taken by Greg Jenkins in 1993. The building was already in dire straights and seems to have been stripped by scrappers. The damage done by scrappers left the building open to the elements, causing it to degrade at an accelerated pace. This was the case with most abandoned buildings in Gary then and now. This building also burned on the night of the fires, but remained standing — unlike its sister.

Map of affected buildings so far. Aerial taken in 1998. I know ‘origin’ is spelled wrong. Didn’t catch it.

This map is an attempt to show which buildings burned at the beginning of the fire. The actual flow is unknown. It is weird how the Broadway storefronts burned first, stretching nearly two blocks, before Memorial Auditorium began to burn. Memorial Auditorium was adjacent to the point of origin — immediately east of it — yet it didn’t burn until 30–40 minutes after the main fires started and maybe about 15–20 minutes after Goldblatt’s began to burn. How is a purely wind-driven fire going to go against the wind and set something else on fire near the point of origin almost an hour later? Once again, it lends credence to the theory that some of the fires were indeed set purposefully. Either that — or — the winds were so strong that flames blew directly north, and a sudden shift in the winds direction blew embers from the original fires onto the roof of the auditorium. It’s hard to say with absolutely no evidence or materials from that night to study.

I reached out to the City of Gary nearly a year ago. I submitted a FOIA request for all documents pertaining to this fire. You can guess what happened with that (hint: nothing). I also reached out to ex-Mayor Scott King for an interview. He did not reciprocate any of my inquiries after initial contact. Don’t know how to read that; just left the matter alone.

We are nowhere near done with this night. In fact, the story is just beginning to heat up. Stay tuned for the next part.

Amateur local historian, Gary, IN native.