Photo by Nick Fiala

The fire’s enormous pillar of smoke was visible for miles around.

RENSSELAER — First responders and fire departments from Jasper County and beyond all responded to a massive blaze in Rensselaer's downtown mall Sunday afternoon.

The entire building housing the mall and other county businesses and facilities between North Van Rensselaer and North Front streets was destroyed. Firefighters worked into the night to extinguish the last flames, which spread down to a basement area beneath the building.  

The blaze began sometime around noon, launching a pillar of smoke into the air visible for miles across town. Traffic cones and caution tape lined a perimeter of two blocks around the mall to keep crowds of bystanders away from the immediate area. 

While watching the blaze along North Van Rensselaer Street that afternoon, Mayor Stephen Wood was reminded of the fire that struck the corner of West Washington and South Front streets in the 1990s, where only a parking lot exists today.

"There were like three buildings there," he recalled. "It took all three buildings down."

By approximately 4:30 p.m., the vast majority of flames visible from outside the building had been extinguished, and firefighters were soaking the charred remains of the structure to keep it from rekindling. 

Julie Wall, owner of the local antique shop Endless Treasure, told the media she believes the fire started in the same space she originally rented for the store, on the east end of the building. She said the reason she moved her business was because of a concern about "faulty wiring" in the building, which she said was not addressed even though she "reported it to several different officials."

Rensselaer Fire Chief Kenny Haun told local radio station WLQI that up to eight departments and approximately 75 firefighters were at the scene battling the fire. He also confirmed that the fire started in the west end of the building and moved to the east end.

Haun thanked all the firefighters for a “good job,” and said “it could have been a lot worse.” He also gave thanks to Monticello and Remington's first responders for their aerial trucks. As of early Sunday evening, he said the cause of the fire was not yet known and that one firefighter had received a minor injury.

As devastating as the fire was to the mall's businesses, it also provided a stirring example of Rensselaer's resolve in the face of trials. 

When the sun began to set that evening, the prevalent smell of smoke was countered by another smell — warm pizza. Several citizens walked among the firefighters with open pizza boxes, offering fresh slices to the first responders who had been working for hours, along with water and Gatorade.

Other stories of civilians and businesses offering help spread online as well.  

Local business owner Butch Claussen said he ordered 30 cheeseburgers and 30 cups of coffee from a local McDonald's.

"When I went to get them and told (McDonald's) it was for the firefighters, they said, 'It's on us,'" Claussen wrote in a Facebook post. "Thank you, God for a small town and the people who aren't afraid to help others."

Claussen then took his supplies downtown and yelled for help to get the food to the firefighters.

"(I) had more volunteers than I had bundles," Claussen said. "Love this town."

Jasper County's elected officials also voiced their appreciation for local first responders online.

"Thanks to all the area firefighters, EMS, police and those who responded to the devastating Rensselaer fire," wrote Jasper County Commissioner Kendell Culp.

Culp also said Jasper County Emergency Management had set up a base of operations in the basement of nearby Trinity United Methodist Church to bring more food and water to the emergency workers.

"When the city has a crisis, our community comes together," the church later wrote online. "On behalf of the city, Trinity United Methodist Church thanks you for your donations for the firefighters." 

Jasper County Prosecutor Jacob Taulman summarized the situation online. 

"It is a sad day in Rensselaer, and we continue to ask for prayers for the many firefighters involved," he said. "There aren’t enough words of gratitude for the many agencies assisting and those coordinating behind the scenes. And though we mourn this loss, we remember the strength and great support of our community that make this a wonderful place to live."