Johnny Blunschi may have been the first volunteer fireman for the Town of Ferriday to arrive on the scene of the fire at Frank Morris' shoe shop during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964.
"The building was fully involved" with flames, Blunschi said this week.
Blunschi was in bed at home that night in 1964, and was awakened by the sound of his police scanner. That is how he heard about the fire at Morris' shop.
He was 18 at the time, a college student and worked weekends at the Ferriday Police Department, relieving Junior Harp, who was a fireman, dispatcher and city jailer.
Harp told the FBI that he was asleep in the apartment when the phone rang and the caller reported the fire. He didn't know the identity of the caller and as he began to dress he told his wife to call the fire chief and to call volunteer firemen.
Blunschi apparently arrived at the scene a short time after Morris had emerged from the flaming building and had been transported to the Concordia Parish Hospital.
While Morris was being attended by an emergency room nurse there, Ferriday police officers George Sewell and Timmy Lofton raced back to Morris' shoe shop at 415 South Fourth Street in Ferriday.
Morris had suffered third degree burns in the blaze believed to have been set by two white men around 1:30 to 2 a.m. on Dec. 10, 1964. The two officers picked Morris up at the Billups Station, a short distance from his shop, which was in flames as the officers took Morris to the hospital.
The night attendant at Billups told the FBI that after the police officers left with Morris he heard an explosion "like two pounds of dynamite going off" at Morris' shop. The man said the sound was familiar because he had handled dynamite "in his youth."
Before leaving the station for the hospital, one of the officers called the fire department, said the attendant, but "there was no answer." The operator at Southern Bell Telephone Company was then notified of the fire.
The attendant said 10 to 15 minutes later, the fire truck arrived, driven by Junior Harp.
Already on the scene was a crowd of onlookers while one man, who lived next door, was attempting to wet down the front of the building with a garden hose.
Blunschi, who went on to a career with the Louisiana State Police, said he didn't remember many people being there, and recalled waiting a good while before the fire truck arrived.
The Ferriday police car -- a white 1965 Pontiac -- was parked in the middle of the street to block traffic.
One of the first things Ferriday Fire Chief Noland Mouelle had to do when he arrived on the scene was run off a man who was in the way. The man was an employee of International Paper Company in Natchez, who had stopped at the scene "and attempted to direct traffic."
"He was drunk," said Mouelle, and "nearly fell into the fire..."
When the fire truck arrived, the inside of the Morris' shoe shop was ablaze, but the walls had yet to collapse although the front windows had been blown into the street. Mouelle guessed initially that the front windows had blown out due to excessive heat that built up inside the building.
Glass from the two windows "lay spread out in front of the building for about 100 feet."
Mouelle told the FBI that the fire "was burning with intense heat and during the fighting of the fire, the roof and walls collapsed." Mouelle was almost hit by the front wall when it crashed to the ground.
The fire chief recalled that two to three weeks before the fire, Morris' shop had passed inspection, but Mouelle expressed concern over the number of extension cords on the floor, some used to provide electricity to shoe repair machines. Although it wasn't against fire code, Mouelle said he advised Morris "do away with them and get a safer arrangement installed." Mouelle didn't know if Morris had taken the advice.
After the front wall of the building collapsed, Mouelle reported that the side wall and roof fell in after water was sprayed on the blaze. Almost immediately firemen felt that a "flammable liquid" was used to start the fire.
Firemen finally extinguished the blaze in about an hour.
"I remember the fire was wide open when I got there and it didn't seem like anybody saw the fire in its early stage," said Blunschi.
At 4 a.m., Louisiana Deputy Fire Marshall C.W. Pharis of Alexandria was awakened by the ring of his telephone. On the other line was Mouelle. He told Pharis that "a terrible thing had occurred."
Mouelle said he didn't get along well with the local fire marshal and wanted Pharis to investigate the blaze which destroyed Morris' shop and left Morris severely burned. With his supervisor's permission 10 minutes later, Pharis dressed and prepared for a drive to Ferriday.
Not long after arriving, he said someone gave him the name of two men viewed suspiciously. Both were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Former Ferriday Mayor L.W. "Woody" Davis, age 46 then, 90 today, rushed to the fire after he was notified but recalled that it had been extinguished by the time he arrived.
While on the scene, Davis said "a guy walked up and introduced himself. He said he was an FBI agent. He must have been. He was well dressed and had on a hat."
The FBI was well familiar with Concordia Parish. Agents had been investigating a deputy with the Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office since 1962 and were also investigating the deputy in a more recent case -- the July 12, 1964, disappearance of Joseph "JoEd" Edwards, a porter at the Vidalia Shamrock Motel.
Morris, who suffered third degree burns from head to toe, died four days after the fire at the Concordia Parish Hospital.
The FBI is presently reinvestigating Morris murder, believed to be connected with several other crimes in Concordia and Adams County.
Believed responsible for the shoe shop fire was the Silver Dollar Group, some 20 or so Klansmen with a well-established preference for violence and little fear of law enforcement. The group chose its name over coffee at the Shamrock in Vidalia in 1964, according to FBI informants.
As a symbol of the group's unity, each member carried a silver dollar minted in the year he was born.