published Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

State, federal investigators join probe of fires at Chattanooga National Cemetery

  • photo
    Janise Johnson stands at the headstone of her parents, Doris and J. Fred Johnson, Jr., on Monday after a Sunday afternoon brush fire damaged an estimated 200-300 headstones in section DD5 at the Chattanooga National Cemetery. This is the second brush fire in two months at the cemetery
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

For the second time in less than two months a Sunday afternoon grass fire has scorched tombstones at Chattanooga National Cemetery, and state and national investigators want to know why.

A 911 call came in at 1:54 p.m. Sunday informing authorities of the fire that covered an acre and affected about 500 tombstones, severely charring some in the cemetery that houses the graves of military veterans.

The call came nearly seven weeks to the minute after a similar fire with an unknown cause engulfed five acres of the cemetery and affected 1,800 tombstones, requiring some to be replaced.

Sunday's blaze hit a different portion of the 120-acre cemetery's 43,000-plus grave markers.

By Monday evening no cause for Sunday's fire had been determined either, but state bomb and fire investigators had joined with the Chattanooga Fire Department on scene. The Department of Veterans Affairs also plans to look into the situation, Chattanooga Fire Department spokesman Bruce Garner said in a news release.

If the investigation finds arson as the cause of the fires, federal charges could be brought.

Locals with a vested interest in the cemetery were perplexed by the incidents.

"It's a place of honor," said Charlie Hobbs, president of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. "From the veterans side of it, we aren't very happy about it."

Before these two latest fires, Garner could not recall a time in the past 15 years when local firefighters had responded to Chattanooga National Cemetery for a grass fire.

Representatives of Chattanooga National Cemetery did not immediately return calls Monday afternoon.

Janis Johnson was at the cemetery Monday and saw the damage.

Johnson buried her mother there in 2007 and her father, a World War II veteran, was laid to rest beside her in 2012. Johnson is a frequent visitor, but Monday's visit brought her more stress than peace.

She teared up and her heart jumped to her throat when she realized her parents' graves sat on the edge of the burned section. Her parents' graves received minimal harm, for which Johnson said she is thankful. But the fires confirm to her that the cemetery needs more security.

"To me, that's not coincidental in my opinion," said Johnson, who added that flowers have been stolen from her parents' graves in the past. "I don't feel safe going there by myself, not any more."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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