Firefighters return to site of tragic Athletic Club fire 25 years later

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- In the winter of 1992, Indianapolis was a city on the cusp of explosive growth and the focus of international attention.

Downtown living was not trendy. Circle Centre was a hole in the ground. A basketball arena spanned Market Street and the Indianapolis Athletic Club was one of just a couple premier residential locations inside the Square Mile.

The jurors in the Mike Tyson rape trial were sequestered every night at the 70-year-old Athletic Club as the city swarmed with reporters from around the world covering the sensational case of the boxing champion and the beauty queen.

It was just minutes after midnight on Feb. 5, 1992, when someone smelled smoke on the third floor of the ornate building with marble floors and brass fixtures designed in the Renaissance Revival architecture of its time.

“An alarm for fire was sounded on box 92 at 006 hours on a cold February 5, 1992, at 350 North Meridian Street,” said Battalion Chief Howard Stahl during a memorial service Sunday on the basketball court of the IAC to mark the 25th anniversary of the fire.

The flames and smoke played hide-and-seek from the firefighters in the walls and dropped ceilings until oxygen supplies reached critical levels for the responding crews.

“Many members were low on air after the protracted operations,” said Stahl. “They were attempting to exit the area when a flashover occurred.”

Woody Gelenius was among the first to run out of oxygen. John Lorenzano went to his rescue. Both men died in the fire and smoke, as did a visitor from Chicago, and several firefighters were severely injured.

Ladder trucks rescued crews and residents from the upper floors.

Battalion Chief Keith Smith, later named IFD chief, gathered his stunned and grieving firemen around him that night and announced that they would pull together, an investigation would be conducted and Lorenzano and Gelenius would never be forgotten.

Hundreds of firefighters, family members and Athletic Club residents attended the memorial service to recall IFD’s sacrifice that no one felt more than Tammy Gelenius who lost her father that day.

“I know that dad is with all of you,” she told the uniformed firefighters in attendance. “I do know I can say this: his death was not in vain. It was a godsend in a way because it brought changes to the fire department that actually not only helped my children to be safe but their father as well.”

Tammy married a firefighter herself.

“From the ashes of the Indianapolis Athletic Club fire and the tragic loss of two of Indianapolis’ bravest came a new modern and progressive fire department,” said Stahl who listed building code, high rise firefighting strategy and gear improvements that were made after the IAC tragedy not only in Indianapolis but across the country.

“There are many firefighters who never stepped foot into this building or stopped to admire its wonderful architecture,” said Chief Ernie Malone. “It is too hard and it is too sad and even now 25 years later the memory of that night still too painful.”

For many attendees, the memorial service closed the circle and reminded them that IFD never leaves its brother and sister firefighters behind and allowed residents of the building and all of Indianapolis thank the department for the sacrifices that were made.