PETERSBURG, Va. -- Saturday, March 19, 2022, marks the 40th anniversary of a fire that killed a Petersburg firefighter Mike Goff and nearly cost the city its entire downtown.
For those who were there, the day is remembered as a nightmare.
"Every second. It was yesterday. You know, in your minds, it was just yesterday," retired Petersburg Fire Captain Glenn Dean said. "You can still see the scene. You can still see what you were doing and what was happening around you."
Even before firefighters arrived at the burning three-story building on the corner of Franklin and Sycamore Streets, they knew it was a serious fire.
"When we pulled up on the scene, on the second and third floor, there were residents in the windows with flashlights and handkerchiefs," retired Petersburg Fire Captain Jimbo Rice said. "It was a big fire, black smoke rolling across Sycamore Street."
However, none of the firefighters knew just how bad things would get that day.
Dean recalled spotting 78-year-old Daisy Houchins on a balcony.
"I looked down to see what we were doing and I looked back up and she was gone, the balcony and everything was gone," he said.
At least 10 nearby stores were damaged from the three explosions.
"I was standing in front of the building and I could see coming through the building, this huge wall of blue fire and that's when the whole building blew like an atomic bomb," Rice said.
One of the firefighters on the scene that fateful day was Sergeant Mike Goff.
"Mike came in on Truck Two from the Walnut Hill Station," Rice remembered.
Captain Rice immediately put him to work.
"I assigned him to ladder the building and to assist with rescues," Rice said.
Then - the last explosion hit.
"The explosion wiped out our entire shift," Rice said.
At least 25 people suffered injuries, including firemen, the fire chief, policemen, and citizens. About 19 of them were treated at the nearby Petersburg General Hospital.
The valiant efforts of firefighters from six different fire departments were credited with saving downtown Petersburg.
"Without the assistance of mutual aid help, we may have lost our entire downtown strip and it's not an exaggeration," Jack Bond, Petersburg's city manager in 1982, said.
"Very true, very true. I mean, could have wiped out the entire block of Sycamore Street," Rice said.
At the time, the expected damages came out to over $3 million.
But as the fire was brought under control, firefighters realized that one of their own was missing.
"A while after that, news came across Mike was found and confirmed that he didn't make it," Dean said.
It's now four decades later and Sergeant Goff hasn't been forgotten.
"He had this laugh that no one could imitate, it was just unbelievable. I think about Mike quite often, especially certain things that happen throughout my life," Southside Virginia Emergency Crew (SVEC) captain of volunteers said.
"I think that was the biggest part about Mike, more so than the fire service itself. Mike loved helping people. That was his main goal in life," Beemer added.
Just hours after the explosion, Beemer was assigned to drive the firetruck that Mike Goff had driven to the fire back to the fire station. It was the most difficult assignment of his career.
"It was almost a guilty feeling that I was the one bringing that truck back to that station knowing that he was left behind and not knowing where he was at the time," Beemer said.
Mike's death rippled through the local fire community, leaving many with shattered hearts.
"It wasn't just a firefighter killed, it was a friend. I mean, a dear friend to all of us that was killed in the line of duty. It was just devastating," Bish said.
"One of the most heartbreaking things I've ever had to go through in my entire life. Knowing that I had just seen him alive that morning and laughing and carrying on. Good conversation with him and just knowing I was going to see him the next day when I came into work and I never saw him again," Beemer said.
The funeral procession went on for miles as first responders and civilians honored the man so many knew and loved.
Shortly after his death, friends and family wanted to come up with a way to honor Goff. They raised money for a scholarship fund bearing his name that is still given away to this day.
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