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.
The city-owned red-brick market was built in 1873 and designed by Adolf Cluss, one of Washington's most influential architects. The fire there began about 1 a.m. when flames jumped through the South Hall, where the food stalls and lunch counter are located.
Like the Georgetown library branch, the market had no sprinkler system. All 14 small businesses were destroyed.
The North Hall, where artists and craftsmakers set up shop, was spared. All told, about 80 vendors work inside and outside the market, officials said.
Authorities initially said the fire started in a dumpster behind the market, but after further investigation they said it appeared that the flames started in the building and spread to the dumpster.
Scores of residents showed up in the early morning, many hugging as they mourned the damage of their neighborhood gathering place, the city's only functioning Victorian-era market.
"It is the center of our community. This is a big deal for us to see this," said longtime resident Pat Durrand as she aimed her camera at the crumbling roof.
Residents and vendors know each other well because many converge either daily for morning coffee or every weekend. Many employees know the residents by name. The spot is also a popular tourist attraction.
"This is a real blow to the heart of the community," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "This is going to be a time for us to grieve for a while. There's no reason we can't restore the market. It won't be the same, but we can move quickly," Wells said.
Vendors met with Wells and Dan Tangherlini, deputy mayor and city administrator, pressing for answers about the future of their businesses -- when they will be allowed to retrieve their goods and they will be able to reopen. City officials said they hoped to have more information by today.
In Georgetown, the 911 call came about noon. About a dozen people were inside when the fire started. Smoke soon billowed through the roof and across the neighborhood of stately mansions.
Traffic was closed off for blocks and replaced by more than 20 firetrucks, some idling a block away and others with their ladders extended through trees, trying to reach the library. White fire hoses snaked down and across the street.
The library's archivist, meanwhile, stood at Wisconsin and R streets, heartbroken over warped and soot-covered historic paintings and documents that firefighters were bringing out and placing on plastic sheeting on the sidewalk.
The branch's holdings include photos, maps and paintings of the neighborhood and individual files on each home in Georgetown that have been donated over the decades.
The mood was eerily similar to that at Eastern Market.
Lely Constantinople, 35, a photographer, sat on a stone ledge with her 4-year-old and 5-month-old daughters and watched firefighters. She said children's story hours regularly drew as many as 100 kids. "It was invaluable," she said. "There are so few things for kids in this city before they turn 2."
Suzanne Simon, 37, who edits a food Web site, watched the action with her 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
"So many people just go out and buy books. But it's nice to have something like this in the community. It makes it feel more like family. It will be missed," she said.
Staff writers Susan Levine, David Nakamura, Robert E. Pierre, Mary Beth Sheridan and Elissa Silverman and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.