Damaged hydrants slow fire fight at seniors' home in Panola County

By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Firefighters lost precious time when responding to a burning apartment building for the elderly and disabled because the first two hydrants they came to had been damaged, possibly by farmers stealing water, the fire chief says.

Nobody was injured or killed in Wednesday’s fire, but Sardis Fire Chief Chuck Moore says his men could have saved more of the building if not for the damaged hydrants. Firefighters had to go 1,600 feet further to find a working hydrant, losing at least 10 minutes during a critical time in fighting the fire.

Moore said half the 24-unit apartment building at the Sardis Gardens complex was destroyed. Residents were taken to a shelter set up at a church. The local emergency management agency and the Red Cross were offering assistance, he said.

“We’d have probably stopped the damage before it got past the lobby and the apartment next door if we could have gotten some water sooner,” Moore said.

Moore said farmers in the area likely damaged the hydrants while stealing water to fill up huge tanks used to spray fertilizer and other chemicals. Moore said farmers sometimes go to city hall to buy water, and high pressure hydrants can fill the massive tanks quickly. But he said unscrupulous farmers also steal water at times, usually at night.

Moore said it appeared the square valves used to turn on the water had been stripped by pipe wrenches, which rendered them useless to firefighters’ tools to start the water flowing.

Moore said the hydrants are inspected annually so he believes the damage was done this year.

Tommy Waldo, a dispatcher for the area’s emergency services, said the fire started about 7 a.m. He said there were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths at the Sardis complex, which is in Panola County, about 50 miles south of Memphis, Tenn.

Moore said the cause of the fire is under investigation. It appears to have started in the lobby.