As residents flocked to the streets and rooftop decks to watch the neighborhood institution burn, Frager’s general manager vowed the business would be back.
It is “not going down on my watch,” said Nick Kaplanis, who has worked at Frager’s for 17 years. He had walked through crowds of neighbors watching the blaze, some telling him to rebuild.
“That’s my intention,” he said of the complex in the 1100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Wednesday night that the city would help. ”It’s sickening to have to look at,” he said. “I know people who swear by Frager’s.”
Fearing toxic fumes in the thick, acrid smoke, Acting Fire Chief John Donnelly urged people living in the block around the stores to retreat inside, close their windows and turn on their air conditioners, a request still in place after 11 p.m. No hazardous materials were detected.
City officials also said that the inbound lanes of Pennsylvania Avenue near the market should be open by morning rush hour, though the outbound lanes were expected to be closed. Gray urged commuters to seek alternate routes.
The blaze, first reported about 6:30 p.m, went to four alarms, bringing more than 200 firefighters to the complex of three buildings — Frager’s paint, hardware and equipment-rental stores.
A crowd packed the street as thick black smoke and orange flames rose from the family-owned-and-operated business, a throwback to the old-time corner shop where neighbors bumped into neighbors in narrow aisles and on creaky floors, poring over paint colors and looking through tiny drawers with every conceivable size of screw. Customers could buy various things: candy-making equipment, leaf blowers, old-school cast-iron flume covers.
“It’s an institution,” said Terry Unger, an environmental regulatory lawyer who, with her husband, is renovating their home. Her husband, Chris Ellis, 35, was on his way to buy two paintbrushes when the fire started.
“They know your dogs’ names, and they have bones for them,” Unger said of employees of Frager’s, which opened in 1920.
Firefighters battled the blaze from outside the buildings, called an exterior or defensive attack, meaning they were unable to save them. As late as 11:30 p.m., firefighters had not tried entering what remained of the stores and a cause had not been determined.
Earlier, Donnelly said varnish and lumber were inside, which could fuel the blaze. Rows of propane tanks set out by a shed in the back of the hardware store were another concern during the evening.
As the fire roared, people were jumping over a small river of water from the hoses running down G Street SE to get to a deck looking at the back of Frager’s, where thick flames were shooting up from the roof. A mother tried to comfort her crying daughter, the sound of water and breaking glass coming from within the smoke.
Christine Moschetti, manager of live goods at Frager’s, said employees had just been walking around the garden area behind the hardware store Wednesday, talking about how lovely everything looked with the roses blooming.
“I was upstairs in my little office that no longer exists,” she said, watching from a roof deck behind the nursery, where hoses were shooting water at the fire. About 6:30 p.m, she heard a worker call out over a walkie-talkie: “Guys! I think there’s a fire in receiving!”
That’s when she noticed the smell, grabbed her purse, called 911 and went downstairs to leave.
Employees tried to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher, and firefighters arrived quickly, she said. Employees ran down to the basement to make sure no customers or employees were there, and cashiers were still trying to finish transactions but people yelled to get out.
Moschetti kept thinking that firefighters would get the blaze under control quickly, “but there are so many flammable things in a hardware store,” she said. “We’re all devastated. I’ve heard people say when they come into Frager’s, they feel like they’re coming home.”
Joyce Brown, a 71-year-old homemaker, has lived on 10th Street near Frager’s for 30 years, watching the neighborhood change and houses get updated. When she walks in, they say, “Hey, Grandma Joyce!”
She went nearly every day, even if just for ice.
“It’s a small place, but it’s family,” Brown said. “You can get anything you want in there. I get plants. I get flower seeds. Anything you want, even candy for the children.”
Ivory Johnson, who lives directly behind Frager’s, watched anxiously as flames flickered upstairs at the store, with rowhouses crammed in all around.
“People used to have a neighborhood pharmacy, a toy store. . . . Those days are gone,” he said.
Wednesday’s fire came about six years after a massive blaze destroyed stalls at the 134-year-old Eastern Market, another venerable city institution that has since been rebuilt.
Tim Curran, a Capitol Hill resident and an editor at The Washington Post, was at the checkout in the main body of Frager’s 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 ran in before exiting about 6:40 p.m.
In the few minutes it took him 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 paint section, Curran said.
He said that only a few people were in the hardware store at the time, which he described as unusual for that time of day.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) wore a gas mask as he stood across the street while firefighters battled the flames.
Wells, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, 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,” he said. “If they were able to save those structures, I’d be shocked.”
Moschetti, the live goods manager, said coming to Frager’s was “almost like stepping though time. . . . There’s not many places like it left. Old wood floors, creaky walls.”
The smoke was billowing, water roaring, and like everyone else on the deck watching the fire, she was keeping a close eye on the propane tanks.
“I’m probably kidding myself, but it looks like some of the plants are okay,” she said. “But someone was saying, ‘They’re probably over-watered.’ ”
Mary Pat Flaherty, Peter Hermann and Jennifer Jenkins contributed
to this report.