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The Vault: The intense fire that destroyed 7 Heaven Hill warehouses in 1996

It would go down in history as one of the worst distillery fires on record, ultimately eliminating 2% of the world's whiskey overnight.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It started like any other November day at the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown until disaster struck in 1996 and a wooden warehouse went up in flames.

WHAS11’s Sky11 chopper raced to the scene as smoke billowed above.

Water did little in the fight against burning bourbon and within minutes, the first warehouse was a total loss.

First responders put their focus on other buildings, but the flames were too strong, and the weather conditions were worsening.

WHAS11 reporter George Sells was at the scene, frantically calling Melissa Swan in the newsroom.

“Just have to stand back and watch it burn. At this point, there’s absolutely nothing they can do as this rain comes in and these heavy winds blowing. They’re gusting over 40 miles an hour now,” he described.

At least 10 departments joined in the fight to keep the fire contained but wicked winds forced the firefighters to retreat. The fire was so overwhelming, even for the experts. Many of them left their gear behind and ran for their lives.

Distillery workers were devastated as the fire burned into the night and smoldered the next morning.

“With daylight, we get our first real glimpse of the destruction. The scorched ground shows where the flaming, liquid bourbon rolled down the hill from the warehouse onto the distillery and other buildings,” then WHAS11 anchor Gary Roedemeier said.

Those on the ground compared the aftermath to a war zone. Vehicles were left behind by workers desperate to escape. Melted tired and paint burned down to the metal was all that was left.

As for the bourbon, tens of thousands of barrel rings that once held 4 million gallons of alcohol tell you all you need to know.

The same national response team that investigated the Oklahoma City Bombing and the crash of TWA flight 800 headed to Kentucky to investigate.

In the days that followed, investigators worked to determine the cause said the fire destroyed much of the evidence needed. Seven of the warehouses burned to the ground.

There wasn’t any indication the fire was intentionally set and the cause was classified as undetermined to the intensity of the heat.

It was devastating but not a total loss for Heaven Hill.

Thirty-seven of its distillery warehouses survived the fire and the bourbon inside continued to age many more years before eventually moving on to the bottling process and enjoyed across the world.

In the 25 years since the fire, there have been major safety improvements made inside bourbon warehouses in an attempt to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again.

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