2 Fires Ravage Eastern Market, Georgetown Library in 12 Hours

The Eastern Market fire began at 1 a.m., destroying the 14 vendor stalls in its South Hall. Officials think the blaze was accidentally caused.
The Eastern Market fire began at 1 a.m., destroying the 14 vendor stalls in its South Hall. Officials think the blaze was accidentally caused. (By Jared Weaver For The Washington Post)
By Allison Klein, Keith L. Alexander and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A pair of massive fires ripped through two treasured city buildings in separate incidents yesterday -- first destroying the butcher, bakery and fishmonger stalls at Eastern Market and 12 hours later claiming valuable books, leather-bound documents and artwork at the Georgetown branch of the D.C. Public Library.

About 400 D.C. firefighters and other emergency personnel responded to the three-alarm fires at the neighborhood landmarks, which are about seven miles apart. No one was hurt in either blaze.

The causes are under investigation, but Acting Chief Dennis L. Rubin said last night that he was "90 percent" sure that the Eastern Market fire was accidental, probably caused by an electrical problem. The 134-year-old market, beloved for its food, flowers and flea markets, sustained $20 million in damage, a city official said.

Rubin said he did not know what led to the fire at the library, a 1935 Georgian revival mansion known for its collections of local history. Officials said it was in "various states of collapse" but had no damage estimate.

The branch had no sprinklers, and Rubin said two of the fire hydrants closest to the library were not functioning.

Authorities said they do not think the fires are connected but noted several coincidences, including the timing, scope and damage caused. Both were in busy parts of the city: Eastern Market is at Seventh and C streets SE in Capitol Hill, and the library is at Wisconsin Avenue NW and R Street NW.

Three-alarm fires are rare in the District, and officials said it was rarer still to have two such emergencies in the same day. About one-fifth of the department's workforce was at one scene or the other, and neighboring jurisdictions helped the District keep up with other calls.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) raced from one place to the other with Rubin, the former Atlanta fire chief who took over in Washington just two weeks ago. Fenty reassured people at both locations that the city will rebuild and quickly began working to find ways to pay for the projects.

People in both neighborhoods were crushed.

"This is devastating," said Kimberly Konkel, 35, a regular at the market. "I'm surprised how emotional it feels to lose a building."

Fenty called Eastern Market "a historic landmark that has been the lifeblood of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and a great source of pride for the entire city for more than a century." In Georgetown, he said the library was a "flagship."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a 30-year resident of Capitol Hill, said she was looking for federal money to aid in the Eastern Market reconstruction. Capitol Hill neighborhood activists banded together to quickly set up a donation fund and announce that the site -- at least the outdoor flea market -- will be open this weekend for business. And, the neighbors said, the annual Eastern Market Day celebration will be held Sunday as scheduled.

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