Liveblog: Fire at Frager’s Hardware


(Tim Curran/The Washington Post)

Frager’s Hardware, the iconic Capitol Hill retailer whose narrow aisles and stuffed shelves have served residents for 90 years, caught fire at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. The blaze sent dark smoke into the sky, visible from across the city and as far away as Arlington, and darkened the spirits of Hill residents who consider the store a neighborhood institution.

Michelle Boorstein and Clarence Williams report from the scene: “The blaze went to three alarms, bringing more than 100 firefighters, and was still raging as of 7 p.m., shutting down the 1100 block of Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Fire officials said at least two or three other buildings were in danger of catching fire along the street, near the Eastern Market Metro.”

[liveblog]

What will happen to the store’s employees?

Flames continued to pop up as clocks approached 10:30 p.m., Sue Svrluga reports, but firefighters have kept their hoses trained on what remains of the Frager’s complex. The exterior walls remain standing, but the interior appears to be a total loss, according to eyewitness accounts.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is expected on the scene soon to give a briefing for the 11 p.m. newscasts.

Among the most immediate concerns: What will happen to the store’s approximately 60 employees?

“It’s heartbreaking,” employee Kristin Sampson, 36, told Svrluga. “Frager’s is definitely more than just a place you work. It’s such a part of the community. It’s a fantastic quirky bunch of people. You know your customers; they know you. It definitely feels like it’s a family that’s going through this.”

“My first thought is — what’s next ,” said Matt Lovelace, 26, the store’s lawn and garden manager, who has a 1-year-old baby at home. “It’s horrible. It’s horrible.”

The fire is not quite out, but this liveblog has been extinguished for now. Follow along for more updates on The Post’s homepage.

‘We will rebuild’

Susan Svrluga reports:

Nick Kaplanis, a Frager’s employee for 17 years and the store’s general manager, watched water pour off the smoking building shortly before 10 p.m., wishing he could know how much damage there was.

“Frager’s is an institution, and it’s not going down on my watch,” he said.

He had walked through crowds of neighbors watching, some telling him, “Rebuild.”

“That’s my intention,” he said.

Plenty on Twitter agreed:

Post editor was inside when fire broke out

Tim Curran, a Washington Post editor who lives near Frager’s, was at the checkout in the main body of the hardware store “when someone came from the back of the store yelling there was a fire.”

Another section of the store carries paint, and Curran said, “I banged the glass of the paint store saying there was a fire” and then ran in before exiting about 6:40 p.m., he said.

In the few minutes it took Curran to get “around the corner, the place was literally up in flames with a really thick plume of smoke blowing off.” The fire seemed to be coming from behind the section that carries paint, he said.

Curran said there were only a handful of people in the hardware store at the time, which he described as unusual for that time of day. The store was set to close at 7 p.m., according to its posted hours.

James V. Grimaldi, a former Post investigative reporter who now writes for The Wall Street Journal, tweeted an interview with Frager’s co-owner John Weintraub:

Fire union reports equipment problem

The D.C. firefighters union reported problems with a crucial piece of departmental equipment at the Frager’s scene. The union has assailed department management for poor fleet maintenance in recent months.

Massive fire response

This photo, taken from the northwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 11th Street SE and post at 8:51 p.m. by tweeter Alex Block, captures the scale of the fire response. At least five ladder trucks appear to be on the scene.

Update from fire officials

The Post’s Clarence Williams reports from a 9:15 p.m. news conference:

Officials said the fire is still burning, but they said they are confident the blaze has been contained to the three-building Frager’s complex.

Two firefighters were taken to a hospital with minor injuries. Acting Fire Chief John Donnelly said at least 50 pieces of fire equipment and about 200 firefighters were on the scene. At one point, he said, they were pouring 20,000 gallons a minute onto the flames.

“That’s a lot of water,” he said.

When firefighters arrived on the scene, Donnelly said, they attempted to extinguish the fire inside but quickly determined it wasn’t safe and evacuated.

Pennsylvania Avenue SE remains closed between 9th and 13th streets, while north-south streets in the vicinity are closed between D to G streets SE.

Officials asked that residents remain inside their homes with their windows closed and the air conditioning running due to the heavy smoke conditions. Hazardous materials units are monitoring the air for toxins, they said, but none had been detected as of 9 p.m.

The Hill’s Christmas tree haven

Come holiday time, Frager’s took on a new role: Christmas Tree central. In 2006, Post columnist John Kelly profiled Capitol Hill’s premier tree operation:

Frager’s Hardware, much beloved for its funky interior, eclectic product selection, and helpful staff is about to add an upscale addition fronting on 11th Street. The ground floor of the proposed glass atrium will be in the words of one architect, a “curated showroom” to display high end products including light fixtures, cabinets, and plumbing fixtures. In addition, design consultancy may be offered in the new space.

[...]

Frager’s has “promotional” trees, nature’s factory seconds. Lopsided and misshapen, these Charlie Brown trees work well in a corner, if not in a bay window.

What most people opt for is the quintessential Capitol Hill tree: tall, because of the houses’ high ceilings, and skinny, because of their narrow rooms.

Store had planned expansion

Frager’s, beloved for its cramped, old-school charm, was in recent months pursuing  approval for a small, sleek expansion to its 11th Street building.

Larry Janezich reported on the plans at the Capitol Hill Corner blog:

Frager’s Hardware, much beloved for its funky interior, eclectic product selection, and helpful staff is about to add an upscale addition fronting on 11th Street. The ground floor of the proposed glass atrium will be in the words of one architect, a “curated showroom” to display high end products including light fixtures, cabinets, and plumbing fixtures. In addition, design consultancy may be offered in the new space.

Smoke could be hazardous

City authorities are warning residents of surrounding neighborhoods to stay inside due to hazards from the smoke, which would include residue from paint, solvents and other nasty stuff.

From the Alert D.C. system: “Residents of Capitol Hill, Lincoln Park, Hill East, and Near Southeast neighborhoods … The DC Government is recommending that you remain inside your homes with the air conditioning on, but the windows closed, as prolonged exposure to smoke from the fire could potentially be hazardous to your health.”

Frager’s and community

Community members are taking to social media to share their connections with Frager’s as the fire at the store continues to burn. But evidence of the hardware store’s standing in the community is scattered all over other parts of the internet. The store has a 4.5/5 star rating on the review site Yelp. And scores of reviewers are generous with praise for this community hardware store. ‘A good local hardware spot with and old school feel,’ reads the most recent review. Another says, ‘this is the genuine article, a mom-and-pop local hardware store.

Perhaps most telling of the store’s ethos is the most recent tweet left up on their branded account:

 

One Frager’s, four stores


View Larger Map

Though known as Frager’s Hardware, the business is actually several — a hardware store, sure, but also a garden center, a “just ask” tool rental depot and a paint-and-decorating shop.

The business’s homespun Web site shows how it managed to pack big-box selection into two storefront buildings: “Frager’s has what you need for home improvement, home repair, and home renovation projects.  Paint, Building materials; Tool, ladder, & scaffolding rental; Concrete &  mortar; Virginia Lime lime based mortar & paint; Electrical Supplies & cable, plumbing supplies, pipe, lumber, plywood and more.  Please stop by to discuss your project needs, if we don’t have it we can probably order it.”

Flames still visible after two hours

Two hours after firefighters arrived on the scene, flames are still visible, Clarence Williams reports. Orange flames leaped from the roof of the hardware store at around 8:40 p.m.

WUSA-TV reporter Ken Molestina tweeted that the fight has taken a toll on first responders:

Frager’s neighborhood connection

The tweets in remembrance of Frager’s are coming in from all over the city. The smoke has been visible from Anacostia to Columbia Heights. Many have tweeted stories about their memories of the store. For some, that neighborhood connection goes back to childhood.

Cal Silcox, a Capitol Hill native, remembers how the hardware store became a part of his Saturday morning routine.

Frager’s T-shirts


(Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)

Capitol Hill is not known for its fashion sensibility but there is one item of clothing that is a neighborhood staple: The Frager’s T-shirt.

In 2009, Post reporter Stephen Lowman chronicled the rise of a Hill fashion statement:

The T-shirts, printed with the store’s name and date of establishment (1920), have been around since 1975. For most of that time, they were kept in a closet in the upstairs office and worn only as the casual uniform of Frager’s employees. Then about five years ago, more and more customers began asking to buy them.

“They just sort of caught on, so we just kept making more and selling them,” said Ed Copenhaver, the other co-owner.

More than 1,300 size-large T-shirts ($10) were sold last year. Sure, that is a paltry number compared with the 6,000 keys the store copies in one month. But for a hardware store that in one year sells about 500 white toilet seats, 120 hammers and 25 ladders, the shirt has been an unexpectedly strong seller.

Photos from the scene

Onlookers and residents in Capitol Hill residents and onlookers have been taking photos and posting them to twitter and instagram as firefighters try to stop the blaze at Frager’s Hardware.

 

Employees are safe

Charles Allen, chief of staff to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, tweeted shortly before 7:30 p.m. that all Frager’s employees escaped, citing the store’s co-owner:

Deputy Mayor Paul Quander told the Post’s Clarence Williams that no injuries had been reported as of 7:30 p.m. But he said that firefighters had not yet been inside the buildings and have fought the fire from the exterior.

Residents should stay away

Shortly before 8 p.m., District officials urged residents and commuters to avoid the area around Frager’s — “any location within several blocks of 11th & Pennsylvania Ave SE if at all possible.”

A message posted to the D.C. Alerts system classified the incident as a four-alarm fire and indicated Pennsylvania Avenue SE is closed between 9th and 13th streets, with other streets nearby likely blocked.

Frager’s is ‘lost,’ Wells says

Clarence Williams reports:

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) wore a gas mask as he stood across the street as firefighters battled intense flames inside the hardware store 90 minutes after firefighters arrived.

Wells said the fire started in the paint store and spread east to the hardware area where lumber and pesticides were sold.

“We’ve lost Frager’s hardware,” Wells said in an interview. “If they were able to save those structures I’d be shocked.”

Third major Hill fire


The Tune Inn burned in 2011. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The Frager’s fire is the third to strike a beloved Capitol Hill institution in recent years.

Eastern Market, about four blocks away at 7th Street and North Carolina Avenue SE, was gutted by a three-alarm fire in 2007. It reopened two years later after a $22 million renovation.

A June 2011 blaze demolished the kitchen of the Tune Inn, a legendary bar on the 300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, about eight blocks from Frager’s. Neighbors and regulars rallied to support the owners and staff, and the watering hole reopened that November after a spruce-up.

Raw emotions from neighbors

The Post’s Susan Svrluga reports that the blaze has stirred up raw emotions in nearby residents, who have come to rely on the store.

“Frager’s, that’s a family thing,” said Joyce Brown, a 71-year-old housewife who has lived on 10th Street SE nearby for 30 years, watching the neighborhood change, houses get fixed up. When she walks in, they say, “Hey, Grandma Joyce!”

Brown said goes just about every day, even if just for ice. “It’s a small place, but it’s family. You can get anything you want in there. I get plants. I get flower seeds. Anything you want, even candy for the children.”

She ran outside when she heard the sirens. “Main thing is, I hope nobody is hurt,” she said. “Something can blow up in there.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · June 5, 2013