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Four-Alarm Fire Claims Prominent Barn on Beloved Keesling Farm
April 30, 2008 - There was no mistaking the enormous tower of black smoke that rose from Knightstown Wednesday afternoon. People in and around Knightstown, most of them just finishing lunch most likely, had to have known the source of the smoke was the harbinger of something bad, or at least sad.
It turned out to be both as a major spring fire claimed a well-known fixture on Knightstown’s outskirts.
Although the cause is still uncertain, a four-alarm fire Wednesday destroyed Daryl "Doc" and Patty Keesling's giant, beautiful barn, seen in dozens of Banner photos down through the years as a scenic backdrop to countless KHS baseball games, football games, track meets and other events. Located on the town’s northern edge, directly west of Knightstown Intermediate School, the mammoth barn housed almost as many animals as it did memories, especially for the sprawling Keesling family.
The structure caught fire early Wednesday afternoon. The stately cypress wood building was home to dozens of pigs and chickens, as well as farm machinery, hay and tools. Most of the animals perished, along with practically everything else inside. Amid immeasurable heat, the barn lasted about an hour as gentle spring winds from the north whipped the blaze into a massive inferno with flames reaching as high as 150 feet.
Looking up north Washington Street, the thick black smoked roiled and moved like an angry buffeting funnel cloud set against a blue sky. Mike Hill, a Shirley fireman, said he saw the ebony smoke tower from a few miles north. "I knew something big was burning in Knightstown," Hill said. "I got down here as quick as I could to see if I could help."
By the time this reporter made it to the scene, the wind was gusting hard and the barn, now fully engulfed, crumbled at its apex, greatly intensifying radiating heat, which could be felt from hundreds of yards away. With the roof caved in, Knightstown volunteer firemen Mark Tabb and Carl Smith moved toward the barn’s north side, wrestling into position a two-and-a-half-inch hose. Opening the nozzle, the two got as close as they could while pouring on the first quenching stream of water.
"That was the hottest fire I’ve ever fought," Tabb said later. "I got a radiant burn on my arm and shoulder. It gave me a like a sunburn through my protective gear. It was amazing."
The Keeslings themselves arrived on the scene quickly, considering Doc teaches at nearby Knightstown High School and Patty teaches at neighboring Knightstown Intermediate School. Both seemed to take the loss in stride: "I guess I’m just trying to remain philosophical about it," Patty said with a smile and a sigh as she closed a cattle gate in the lower pasture, her family’s once beautiful, unique cypress wood barn blazing behind her. "What can I say," she said. "It’s just a barn. No one got hurt."
Later, Doc was equally pensive, although obviously saddened. "A barn can be replaced," he said. "We’re just glad no one got hurt."
The kiss of death for the barn seemed to be mild spring weather. Beneath sunny skies, light winds drove gusts of oxygen through the fuel-filled barn. Before the fire, its position atop a small hill always seemed advantageous, crowning the farm and giving the Keesling property a picturesque quality, particularly in spring and summer when evening mist lay below the barn in the low fields and pastures.
But, as the fire progressed, the barn’s hilltop posture seemed a target for sudden wind gusts which occasionally laid the tower of flame neatly on its side, blasting everything downwind with heat and fire that ignited paint and rubber as well as fence posts, ground mulch and just about everything else. Firemen used smaller hoses to douse other fires wrought by the barn’s intense heat and reaching flames.
A four-alarm event, the blaze first drew Knightstown volunteer fire fighters, then personnel from Spiceland, Dunreith and Charlottesville. The farm’s long, tree-lined lanes were choked with trucks from each department as firemen went to work protecting the century-old Keesling home, located just downwind of the blazing barn. Firemen quickly set up portable reservoirs and began delivering steady streams of water to both the house and bar, emptying at least two pumper trucks in the process.
Meanwhile the fire's intense heat ignited more nearby materials, including trees, grass and animals. Cows in a small adjacent holding area upwind of the barn panicked and stampeded wild-eyed from one end to the other. They were released unharmed into a lower pasture by a good samaritan. While the cattle lived, the pigs and chickens in barn's below-ground stables did not fare as well. One eye-witness said he saw pigs running out of, then back into the burning building. Another witness said he saw the terrified animals on fire and smoking as they squealed and darted in and out of the cruel flames.
The barn was a proud building that for decades reminded Knightstown High School students that they did indeed live in a farming community. While it burned, Doc and Patty Keesling watched and helped out where they could, lamenting the loss but relieved their house was saved. Patty and her daughter, Kate, carried out armloads of water and Gatorade for thirsty, over-heated firemen, some of whom gulped water between doses of bottled oxygen.
A few hours later, all that remained of the barn were two earthen ramps that once led to the barn’s cavernous interior, low blocked walls bordering the foundation and a smoldering, smoky pile of charred wood, twisted metal and broken glass. The barn’s standing-seam metal roof lay on the ground like blackened bed sheets. Fire fighters continued to pour water down the barn’s blackened gullet while other volunteers extinguished small secondary fires and embers.
The Keeslings were relieved that their house was saved. But, according to Doc, smoked forced its way into the home and did its invisible, but noxious damage. "No one can sleep in there until it gets aired out some more," Doc said. "It smells too bad."
He said an inspector from the Indiana Fire Marshal’s office was due at the site this week and, until then, clean-up must be put on hold so a cause for the fire can be determined.
(The Indiana State Fire Marshal's office has since the ruled the fire accidental.)
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