The clinic, which provides abortions, was reported ablaze around 6:30 a.m., the Knoxville Fire Department said in a 9:30 a.m. statement.
“On arrival companies found a large single story commercial building fully involved with fire through the roof,” the department statement read. “Crews initially attacked the fire defensively from the exterior. Currently the fire is under control and should be declared out shortly. The building was being renovated at the time of the fire. The building is a total loss. The fire is currently under investigation. Further information will be released as the investigation continues.”
No injuries were reported in the incident, the department said. The clinic, the East Knoxville Planned Parenthood, had been closed for renovations, Knoxville’s WBIR reported. The location was still offering telehealth appointments. Knoxville Police told The Daily Beast that the fire department's arson investigators were still taking the lead on the case as of Friday morning.
The Knoxville Fire Department was only able to safely enter the building by early afternoon, Assistant Chief Mark Wilbanks told The Daily Beast. Previously, the department had examined the interior via a drone, looking for a fire cause and origin.
“Right now we don’t have a cause and we don’t have a lot of information pointing in the direction of arson,” Wilbanks said, noting that the building had been undergoing repairs. Still, “due to the nature of the building, that it’s a Planned Parenthood, we’re examining all angles.”
The East Knoxville clinic came under attack earlier this year, when a gunman opened fire on its glass doors, shattering them. No one has been arrested in the attack. The clinic has also spent a year and a half in the crosshairs of a religious group, “The Church At Planned Parenthood,” that holds regular protests outside the women’s health facility.
The catastrophic New Year’s Eve blaze comes amid an all-out assault on abortion rights in the U.S. Websites for abortion providers list the Knoxville clinic as one of less than 10 abortion-providing locations in the state. And a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court recently hinted at overturning the seminal Roe v. Wade decision enshrining abortion rights in America.
Tennessee is also facing some of the nation’s most severe anti-choice laws. Last year, Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a restrictive measure blocking abortion as early as six weeks—at which point many people are unaware that they are pregnant. A judge quickly filed an injunction against the law, preventing it from taking effect, but Tennessee is appealing the ruling in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. A similar Texas law, also challenged in the Supreme Court, threatens precedent-setting measures that would ban abortion after six weeks.
Knoxville Fire officials said nine of their companies responded to the blaze, but that its advanced progress prevented them from battling it inside the building. The department shared pictures of the aftermath, which revealed a completely gutted clinic interior.
The heavy damage makes arson investigations more challenging, Wilbanks said. Due to the heavy fire load when firefighters arrived, they had to douse the building in water, which stopped the blaze but could also obscure its causes.
“We used our ladder trucks to use a lot of water to put the fire out, which unfortunately makes it harder to dig into the evidence,” he said, noting the building’s subsequent collapse. Investigators will have to sort through the ruins by hand, he added. “Ideally, you’d go in there with backhoes and dig it out, but we’re going to have to use hand shovels.”