KFD grateful no injuries in Parkway fire

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The Parkway Hotel building the day after a fire tore through its upper floors. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

Nearly 70 years of memories were gutted by a weekend fire that tore through the upper floors of the historic Parkway Hotel building in South Knoxville.

Firefighters felt lucky that no one was hurt while trying to contain the blaze in the vacant, dilapidated five-story structure.

They credited the lack of injuries to Battalion Chief Robby Copas, who was quick to change tactics once it became clear that any firefighters who entered the building were likely to be killed or hurt. 

The blaze was reported at 12:25 a.m. Saturday, and firefighters arrived to see flames and thick black smoke pouring from the third-floor windows, said KFD Capt. D.J. Corcoran.

Initially the crews tried an “interior attack,” meaning they tried to fight the blaze from inside the structure as the flames burned their way up the fourth and fifth floors before erupting through the roof, Corcoran said.

“Conditions weren’t safe to go into that building,” he explained. “The floors were kind of spongy and weakened, and there were holes in some of the floors and ceilings.”

Copas ordered the 30-plus firefighters who were dispatched to the scene to form a perimeter and shift to a “defensive attack” that entailed pouring water onto the exterior of the building to prevent the flames from spreading to the adjoining strip mall. Their efforts required all lanes of Chapman Highway to be closed for much of the night.

A fire rips through the upper floors of the Parkway Hotel building in South Knoxville early Saturday morning. Source: KFD

Corcoran said he remembered training exercises from decades ago that anticipated the problems encountered Saturday morning.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, that building was in real rough condition,” he said. “I thought back then that I hoped we never had a fire in there because someone would be hurt.”

The building in the 3600 block of Chapman Highway had been a local landmark for generations but had been closed for several years.

Built in 1951, the Parkway Hotel’s original owners hoped to tap into the vast numbers of tourists who were beginning to flock to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as the nation entered its post-World War II economic boom, said Jack Neely, executive director of the Knoxville History Project. 

“It was a remnant of the era when Chapman Highway was the nation’s main route to America’s most popular national park, long before there were lots of hotels closer in Pigeon Forge,” Neely said.

As more and more accommodations were built closer to the park in Sevier County, the Parkway was forced to transition to a residential hotel that primarily served the disabled and transient populations. 

Architecturally, the trapezoidal masonry building has always been something of an outlier among the strip malls and restaurants that line Chapman Highway. 

“It’s a pretty simple building. I’ve never been inside it, but the outside doesn’t look like they wasted a lot of money on design,” Neely said. “It’s different from most motels on Chapman Highway, though, mainly in its height. Maybe the only multi-story urban-style building on Chapman Highway. Built right by the street, like a downtown building would be.”

Officials said the building was likely a total loss.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. 

Battalion Chief Robby Copas

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on August 23, 2021.