Plumes of black smoke filled the sky over Wagga's main streets as Alec Peacock abandoned his mid-morning deliveries.
It was May 4, 1959. Passersby had gathered outside the iconic Nesbitt's furniture store at 102 Baylis Street. Mr Peacock joined the crowd.
Smoke billowed from its shattered windows, flames danced through both storeys.
"You could see it from a long way away," Mr Peacock recalled. "It was the biggest fire I'd ever seen."
Then aged 20, Mr Peacock was working for PE Power Transport. He was still two years from joining the Wagga fire brigade though he would go on to serve the station for 33 years.
His father-in-law, Don Graham, stood in the centre of the chaos on that Monday morning. His bronze firefighter's helmet a shining contrast to the dark clouds of smoke around him.
"I was just a spectator on the footpath that day," Mr Peacock said.
"Everyone was trying to help, but we were tripping over each other. There were crowds [10 to 12] deep lining the streets, we couldn't move for anyone."
The fire that destroyed Nesbitt's furniture store was splashed on The Daily Advertiser's front page the following day.
"More than 1500 people packed into the block outside the store to watch the fire, while hundreds more watched it from a lane at the rear of the building," it reported.
"All available police were called in to control traffic along Baylis Street and to keep the huge crowds in check while the firemen fought the blaze."
Electricity was cut and water supplies diverted to increase the volume for firefighters.
"At one stage flames leaped hundreds of feet into the air as rolls of linoleum, drums of paint, and furniture caught fire," The Canberra Times reported.
Ian Nesbitt, the son of the then-owner, was just 11 years old at the time. He recalls making his way through the laneway toward his family's fully-engulfed furniture store.
"I was at South Wagga School and the teachers came to me to tell me the shop's on fire," Mr Nesbitt recalled.
"I went up to the top floor and I couldn't see anything. Then I walked down to the alley behind the store - between Morgan and Thomson Street - and the police stopped me. I saw my uncle, Jack, and he let me through. He said [to the police] 'he can come through'."
Mr Nesbitt felt overwhelmed once he saw the state of his family's business.
"What gave me nightmares was the smell, I've never forgotten that," he said.
"All the glass on the display windows had been smashed out. There was a hole in the floor. It was all gone except for the facade."
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The fire began at 11.15am at the back of the building before it grew to overcome it and everyone inside.
More than 100 firefighters from the Wagga station and the RAAF worked until 3.30pm to put out the initial fires and remained overnight to ensure it did not reignite.
"It started in the hessian packing, it was just thin glass and timber [weatherboard] slats that separated that with the office, so once it got through that, the whole shop was gone," Mr Nesbitt said.
Tony Grentnall, who worked in the packing department, was the first to raise the alarm. A 17-year-old worker by the name of Robert Hodge ran to the neighbouring store, where 18-year-old office assistant Jennifer Smith called the fire station.
What was annoying to me afterward was it burnt a suit of armour we had - we used to called it Charlie.Ian Nesbitt
Together they made fast work of retrieving documents and finances from the office.
"We kept going until we couldn't see for the smoke," Mr Hodge told reporters. "There were still a lot of records which we never had time to get out."
Miss Smith told reporters she was attempting to secure cash into the office safe when the flames came through the walls. With thousands of people packed on all sides of the store, the situation became volatile.
As The Daily Advertiser reported at the time: "at the height of the fire, flames and smoke shot hundreds of feet into the air and firemen were hampered by bullets and cartridges which were exploding inside the building".
"At one stage, police had to move many people out of the lane when an electric light pole burst into flames and lines threatened to fall amongst them."
Nine people reported injuries, with only one requiring hospitalisation.
Two firefighters were trapped for about 10 minutes when they entered the building. Escaping through a window at the back of the building, the firefighters circumvented harm.
Fred Lynn Snr had been inside the building when he was showered with burning debris. Another man, reported as Mr J Sladeck of Berry Street, sustained minor burns to his face and head.
Voluntary captain of the brigade, Claude Day, was also treated for burns to his hands and forearms, but "after ambulance attention he continued to direct fire fighting operations", The Daily Advertiser reported.
The only thing Mr Nesbitt's father was able to salvage was his prized 1951-model Fleetwood Cadillac which was parked in the back shed at the time.
When the smoke cleared, the car, a truck and another of the store's vehicles had been saved. Along with the files that had been secured by the quick-thinking employees, it was all that remained of the Nesbitt's furniture store.
After the smoke had cleared the next day, The Canberra Times reported on the front page that the shop had sustained £500,000 damage.
"What was annoying to me afterward was it burnt a suit of armour we had - we used to called it Charlie," Mr Nesbitt said.
"It was gold engraved, magnificent, I don't know why it was left there but it's a shame it got burnt. All that's left is the pieces bar the head."
Though it threatened to, the fire did not touch the neighbouring businesses on the busy CBD street.
"They kept it confined to Nesbitt's. That's always the priority in a fire like this, keeping it away from the other buildings," Mr Peacock said.
"They kept water on the joins and the gutters [but] there was plenty of fuel inside the furniture store. I think the lacquers and paints had caught alight as well as all the wood [furniture]."
Robert George Nesbitt, the grandfather of Ian Nesbitt, had worked the business to its towering success since starting it on Baylis Street in 1910.
His grandson recalls the Baylis Street business had been purchased at auction for just £5000. But on the day of the fire in 1959 - just shy of half a century after its first opening - it appeared all had been lost.
"My father used to say it turned his hair grey to lose it all," Mr Nesbitt said.
Following the death of Robert in 1956, the store changed hands as Robert's sons Jack and Neville took control. The brothers had only been at the helm for three short years when it was all destroyed.
But though devastated in the wake of the fire, the family managed to rebuild and reopen the following year.
Since 1976, the business has been run by Ian Nesbitt out of its newer location on Hammond Avenue. Despite its dramatic near-end, the store has retained its titles as Wagga's longest-running family-owned business.
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