Fire ravages stores at wholesale market in Northeast

November 1, 2012

The owner of the store called Mexican Fruit stood stunned, staring from across the street at his shop in a Northeast Washington warehouse that partially crumbled under the weight of a fire Wednesday night.

His jars of imported jalapeno peppers and tomatoes escaped the flames and soaking hoses, Jesus Balbuena said, but acrid smoke rendered his food stock worthless.

“I will have to dump it and rebuild,” the 34-year-old Mexico City native said while waiting for firefighters to extinguish embers that kept burning long after the two-alarm fire had been brought under control early Thursday.

The owners of at least three other storefronts in the 1200 block of Fourth St. NE had their shops burned out, their assortments of ethnic food, tropical produce and trinkets sold on carts and in dollar stores lost to the flames.

Balbuena, who lives in Laurel with his wife and two children, remained optimistic that the warehouse can be rebuilt and he can reopen the store he runs with his brother.

“This is my life,” he said. “We need this.”

More than 100 D.C. firefighters battled the fire, which started about 10 p.m. Wednesday in the warehouse district off Florida Avenue NE. As the concrete roof collapsed, commanders pulled firefighters from the interior and poured water from ladder trucks positioned on adjacent streets — a step that a Fire Department spokesman said is taken when it appears that a building cannot be saved.

A cause and origin of the blaze and a damage estimate were not available Thursday.

The tangle of sprawling warehouses, some filling entire city blocks, is squeezed between two of the city’s newest redevelopment projects: condos going up at the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station, and Union Market, which opened in September to 40 artisanal food producers. The new market is two blocks from the fire scene and emerged unscathed.

The Florida Market is an old-school food and trinket bazaar that mostly sells to vendors, stores and restaurants, though some shops sell retail. Among the languages in use at the market are Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. Goods, available in bulk, range from fresh goat to cellphone covers, kimchi and umbrellas.

Even as displaced workers watched as fire investigators combed through the wreckage, the bustle of commerce continued for those who escaped the fire. Up and down Morse Street, around the corner from the burned-out stores, workers buzzed around in carts, lifted pallets of food, clothing and T-shirts, and dodged fire equipment, cones and police tape.

Three generations of family-run Hartman Meat, supplier to more than 300 small ethnic restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and the District, have worked in the building next to the one that burned.

On Thursday, owner Bill Hartman sat in a booth at the loading dock, lights and phones powered by generators, hurriedly taking orders and counting boxes of hams and livers destined for dinner plates.

His company has been a fixture at the market since the 1940s, and he said that he is confident it will all remain, despite the fire and new development in the area.

“We all help each other out here,” Hartman said. “We’re a family.”

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