ST. LOUIS • In 1971, a fire broke out in the vacant Heyday Shoe building, once a maker of women's wear. Smoke rose high above the old manufacturing district west of downtown.
The dark column was but a foreshadow. The fire burned away the roof and windows at 2032 Locust Street, but the seven-story brick walls remained.
Five years later, a city agency owned the hulk. There was talk of selling it for a parking lot. It sat empty with a skeletal interior of heavy timbers and no roof — a perfect flue, as a fire official later would say.
Shortly after 4 p.m. on April 2, 1976, fire broke out again inside the Heyday. A nearby businessman heard an explosion and saw flames. He probably heard the fireball erupt.
It quickly raged through the Heyday and jumped across Locust to the St. Louis Housing Authority warehouse, then to other buildings along Locust. A firestorm was on.
More than 200 St. Louis firefighters with 51 trucks surrounded the oxygen-sucking inferno, which created winds strong enough to knock helmets off firefighters and misdirect water sprays. Engine Company 5 had to abandon its pumper on 21st Street.
Fires broke out on rooftops two and three blocks away. The Heyday collapsed. So did a wall of the Housing Authority building, crushing Pumper 5.
High above, traffic-helicopter reporter Don Miller watched the fire jump streets. "I could feel the heat at 1,700 feet," he said.
Miller urged KMOX listeners to stay away, but a tower of smoke visible for 30 miles drew hundreds of gawkers to the area northwest of Union Station. National TV news networks picked up live feeds.
For a time, Fire Chief Charles Kamprad pondered dynamiting buildings to create a firebreak. The desperate tactic had worked to halt the city's worst inferno, the Great Fire of 1849. (That battle also gave the Fire Department its first hero — Capt. Thomas Targee, who was blown up trying to set gunpowder.)
Eight firefighters suffered minor injuries as they labored three hours to keep the fire from spreading. Police Chief Eugene Camp was hit by debris. The next morning, as pumpers poured water onto smoldering ruins, acting deputy fire chief Lou Stauss said, "People don't realize it, but we almost lost the city of St. Louis."
If that was overstatement, it sounded reasonable at the time. Arson investigators later surmised that scrap-metal thieves had ignited the Heyday with an acetylene torch.
The city razed and bulldozed parts of three blocks. Some lots are still covered with grass. The Heyday site became a parking lot after all.
One building that survived is now home to the Schlafly brewery, 2100 Locust.