Fire investigation to start Friday in Frager’s Capitol Hill fire

Correction: Earlier versions of this article, including in Friday’s print edition of The Washington Post, attributed a quote to the wrong person. It was store employee John Barone who said: “This is a negative thing, but we’re going to get something positive out of it. We can address our space issues - the aisles were too tight, the shelves too tall - and we were running out of space. We’ll come back bigger and better and stronger.” This version has been corrected.

More than a dozen police and fire investigators may start sifting through the rubble that once was Frager’s Hardware on Friday to try to determine how the venerable Capitol Hill store caught fire and was destroyed Wednesday night.

Acting Fire Chief John A. Donnelly said officials want to make sure that there are no more flare-ups in the debris and that the remaining walls aren’t at risk of collapse. Only then, he said, will authorities begin assessing the damage and looking for a cause.

But even as residents bemoaned the loss of a store used by generations of shoppers needing anything from old brass radiator valves to snow cone machines, owner John Weintraub vowed to rebuild quickly, and possibly to open soon in a temporary location.

“We didn’t lose anybody, that’s the main thing,” Weintraub said. “We’re going to try and rebuild in under a year. But the community has been great, they’ve really been there for us.”

On Saturday, Frager’s — which opened at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE in 1920 — is slated to do business from a stall at Eastern Market, about two blocks away, selling mostly garden supplies.

Capitol Hill residents woke up Thursday morning to a destroyed Frager’s Hardware Store. Locals gathered around the blazing fire to witness the end of a historic piece of D.C. (Courtesy of WJLA)

Employee John Barone said some features of the store that customers found charming might get a makeover in a rebuilt version, such as overly packed shelves and creaky, narrow aisles.

“This is a negative thing, but we’re going to get something positive out of it,” Barone said. “We can address our space issues — the aisles were too tight, the shelves too tall. We’ll come back bigger and better and stronger.”

Donnelly said the blaze drew more than 200 firefighters and took more than four hours to bring under control; it was the largest in the District since 2008, when an apartment complex in Mount Pleasant went up in flames. A year before that, two large fires in 12 hours ravaged the 134-year-old Eastern Market and the Georgetown branch of the D.C. Public Library.

The acting fire chief said the configuration of the three buildings making up the Frager’s complex, in one place separated by a narrow service alley, made conditions difficult. Propane tanks, helium tanks and a variety of garden products and chemicals were stacked inside and outside the store. In addition, the interior and basement were jammed floor-to-ceiling with merchandise.

“It was like a Home Depot crammed into a 7-Eleven,” Donnelly said.

Fire investigators assigned to the case include members of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the arson squad of the D.C. police. Donnelly said that there is no initial indication that arson was involved but that deploying a broad team of investigators simply provides a wide range of expertise and experience.

The D.C. fire department has confronted a series of challenges in recent months that include slow response times by ambulances and problems with the availability and maintenance of firetrucks and medic units.

On Thursday, Sgt. Dabney Hudson, the second vice president of the firefighter union, said the city’s only tower truck was under repair and unavailable for the Frager fire; he also said that a change in protocol meant delays in getting trucks with high-power hoses to the scene quickly. District trucks with 100-foot ladders were used to pour water streams from high above the blaze, but Hudson said the tower truck has stronger capacity.

Donnelly said that the Navy and Fairfax County sent tower trucks and no resource issues compromised firefighting efforts. He noted that 20,000 gallons of water per minute poured onto the fire at the peak of the effort, “and one more truck wouldn’t have made a difference.”

“We can deal with a large fire like this,” Donnelly said. He said that all the Frager buildings were destroyed and that two houses on 11th Street were damaged. It was too early to estimate monetary loss. “It will be a lot,” the chief said.

On Thursday, people looked at the broken front windows and charred inside of the hardware store, just visible behind fire engines. In the nursery area, some flowers were still blooming, as though nothing had happened. Around the building — smashed, charred — there were strange remnants that looked untouched, such as a stack of ladders, and a sign, “ICE — 10 LB BAG 2.99,” still hanging on a fence.

Even the firefighters from Truck 7 on Capitol Hill, faced with a loose nut or bolt on an engine, wandered into Frager’s. “We go in there to keep our firetrucks running, and now we’re trying to help them out,” Hudson said.

Neighbors, many wearing the navy blue Frager’s T-shirts that the store has been selling for years, talked about how their children would miss getting lollipops there. They marveled at the unending drawers with every size and type of screw and washer imaginable, and at the fact that you could buy just one.

The first place that Atley Thomas ever went, when he was just 2 weeks old, was on a walk to Frager’s. That’s where he first met Santa Claus. That’s where they got the snow cone machine for his birthday parties. And if you ask him, now 4, where he lives, he’ll say, “Washington, D.C., near Frager’s.”

Michelle Boorstein, Mary Pat Flaherty and Trishula R. Patel contributed to this report.

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.

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