Special to the Progress
It is said no two fires are alike. In Claremore’s history there has been structures go up in bigger flames, but the Feb. 24, 1983 fire at Corn’s Western Wear was the most destructive of all time.
That Sunday morning pre-dawn fire caused the death of two of our city firemen. Jim McElwain, 42, a second generation Claremore fire fighter died at the scene. Guy Cooper, 40, died 10 days later after being taken to Hillcrest Burn Center in Tulsa.
They are the only two Claremore firemen to sacrifice their lives in the line of duty.
While none of today’s 40-plus city firemen served with the pair, the memory of McElwain and Cooper remains with each daily. Among them is Jim’s son Brad McElwain following in the steps of his father and grandfather.
The alarm was turned in shortly after midnight. Although located in a shopping center complex on the north side of the city, the Western clothing store was separate from other buildings. It was located next to the entrance off Highway 66. A passing motorist was the first to see flames.
With most city residents sleeping safe in their beds, the firemen answered the call to faithfully do their jobs.
As the burning rage was being brought under control it was clear most of the interior and mechanize had been destroyed. The walls were still standing, however, and even some of the large plate glass windows were in place.
Having extinguished the visual flames, McElwain and Cooper re-entered the building to check for “hot spots.” Suddenly fire flashed out. Others there that morning said the sudden flames were between the two men and an exit.
Big and strong, McElwain somehow managed to get to an opening. He was lying partially outside a front door when his co-workers reached him.
Cooper, three days past his birthday, dived through one of the plate glass windows. In addition to suffering third degree burns, the breaking glass caused a severe cut on his arm.
Firefighters Jeffery Anderson and Dan Combs were also injured that morning.
Almost from the start Fire Chief T.S. Williams declared the fire as arson. A flammable liquid had been used to start it.
A second fire took place less than three miles away at a bar called Buster’s High Class Dive. It apparently started the same way. The State Fire Marshal was called in.
Claremore Police detectives Alan Bird and Chester Baldwin would later arrest two men on the arson charges. The suspects were convicted and went to jail. According to officials, the men never confessed to the reason behind sitting the fires.
The loss of the two firefighters had a lasting effect on the city. Separate full honor funerals were held. Firemen from across Oklahoma and surrounding states attended the services. Condolences to the families and the city also poured in.
Both men left behind wives and three children.
Each also left countless friends.
Jim was known as a man who spoke his mind and always told the truth. He was a compelling sportsman who loved the outdoors. Always quick to break out in a wide smile, he was someone others enjoyed being around.
He had virtually grown up around the fire station. He was proud he had been able to serve together with his father Dall McElwain. They served at the brand new West Side Station for two months before his father’s retirement after 20 years service.
Born and raised in Wagoner, Guy had moved to Claremore 15 years earlier. Tired of making the commute to Tulsa, he made a career change and became a real estate salesman in 1976. He was good at it. He was the top company producer during 1981-83. He recorded $2 million or more in annual sales for five years straight.
In addition to remaining in real estate, Guy decided to fulfill a long time desire. He wanted to become a fireman. At age 38 he joined the Claremore Fire Department and soon earned the deep respect of his co-workers. Guy had recently been promoted Firefighter II.
In 1997, to show their respect for the fallen firemen, eighth and seventh grade art students at Will Rogers Junior High School took on a special class project. Under the guidance of art teacher Linda Scudder, the students painted three detailed murals on the walls at the fire administrative office across the street from their school.
One shows an action packed scene of an early day horse-drawn fire engine leaving the station. To honor Guy Cooper the students painted a modern day scene with the fireman standing in front of the station with the familiar Dalmatian dog looking on. The third mural is the Fireman’s Prayer against background shadows of four firemen battling a blaze. A portrait of Jim McElwain is in the upper corner.
Currently the building at 121 N. Weenonah is locked and closed to the public. The administrators moved back to City Hall when officials were thinking about selling the rock structure.
This thought was shelved when a public outcry against the move was voiced. Plans now call for the fire officials to move back after some repair work.
Once the town’s public library, a portion of the building houses the Lynn Riggs Museum. There is some discussion about moving some of the Riggs items elsewhere in the near future.
Regardless of other plans, hopefully the citizens of Claremore and the city’s visitors will soon be able to once again view the students’ loving tribute.