NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The decade since 42 Maury County Jail prisoners and visitors died in a Sunday afternoon arson fire has seen changes in safety codes -- but there is no guarantee a similar tragedy won't happen again.
'Could that fire happen again? It wasn't a big fire. It was a small fire, but the amount of smoke caused the damage. And a small fire could happen anywhere,' said Wink Brown, chief of administrative services for the Tennessee Fire Marshal's Office.
But Brown said chances of the tragedy being repeated have been considerably lessened by changes in requirements for jails -- changes such as ridding jails of polyurethane mattresses that ignite easily and spew toxic fumes.
The June 26, 1977, fire in Columbia -- about an hour's drive south of Nashville -- was started by a Wisconsin runaway held in a padded cell.
Within minutes after 16-year-old Andrew Zimmer touched off the fire with a borrowed match, 33 trapped prisoners and nine visitors were dead from the toxic fumes. Another 27 prisoners, including Zimmer, were injured.
A few of the prisoner-victims were awaiting trial for serious crimes, but most were serving short sentences for such offenses as public drunkenness.
Visitors were in a hallway outside the locked cells and in a visitors room when the small fire started. In each case, death was caused by the smoke, not the fire itself, as panicked visitors scrambled to escape.
The 14-year-old jail was considered safe because of its brick and steel construction, and was rated among the best in the state -- 18th out of 102 at the time.
'We didn't really think about a jail catching fire,' said Bob Farmer, former Maury County chief deputy.
But what Farmer and other jailers didn't foresee was Zimmer's access to a match, the rapidly spreading smoke from mattresses padding the walls of his cell, and a set of dropped keys.
As thick black smoke spread from Zimmer's cell, Deputy Jerry Dickey ran to unlock other doors. But in the panic, the jailhouse keys were kicked from his hand and remained lost for 12 deadly minutes.
The missing keys meant prisoners were trapped in their cells because there was no backup system to open all of the doors at once with the push of a button.
Officials now say the Columbia deaths were not completely in vain. Because of the fire -- one of the nation's worst jail fires - improvements have been made throughout Tennessee and in other states, Brown said.
'It's been reflected in the type of construction and the addition of sprinkler systems,' he said.
He said the National Fire Protection Association and National Bureau of Standards conducted investigations and made recommendations for jails across the country. The Columbia tragedy is one of three fires mentioned in a Fire Protection Association slide show.
'I'm sure the Columbia fire did result in some of the codes,' said Brown, a fireman in neighboring Williamson County on the day Maury County made headlines across the nation.
'I was on the scene about 15 minutes after the call went out. I was involved in the removal. By the time I got there, there was mass confusion on the radios, but on the scene it was pretty well organized.'
Emergency workers and witnesses say they never will forget the screams of prisoners trapped in their cells and grieving family members as they learned the names of those killed.
'For weeks I couldn't sleep. I'd just lie awake,' said Columbia police officer Frank Duncan.
Lawsuits brought by the families of victims dragged on for about eight years, said County Attorney Will Dale. The final payout by insurance companies for the county and companies that manufactured the polyurethan was about $1.5 million, he said.
'The real thing was the foam insulation that was burned,' he said.
Zimmer, the boy who started the fire, refuses to discuss it now. He spent 18 months behind bars for his part in the fire and returned home to Superior, Wis.
'I don't want to talk about it. It would just dredge up old memories,' Zimmer said.
But as tragic as the fire was and as unnecesary as the deaths were, officials point out it may have saved other lives.
Bill Wamsley, director of the Fire Marshal's engineering plans review section, said the pre-Columbia fire safety code included a page and a half on 'how life safety should be applied to jails.'
'Now there are 15pages in depth,' he said.