A three-alarm fire burned out of control for more than 1 1/2 hours yesterday at the Navy's central accounting and financial center in Crystal City, causing extensive damage to the 11-story glass and concrete building.

Heavy black smoke that filled several floors of the building forced firefighters to crawl through a warren of office cubicles to battle the blaze, which was contained on the fourth floor.

"The smoke was so dense you couldn't find the fire," said Arlington Fire Battalion Chief Claude Jenkins. "It was nothing but a maze up there with locked doors and extremely heavy heat and smoke."

A Navy spokeswoman said last night that officials did not know the extent of damage to the department's financial records.

In 1973, a fire at a St. Louis storage facility destroyed millions of Army personnel records, many essential to applications for retirement and disability benefits. Many of the records, some of which dated from 1885, were not duplicated elsewhere.

Fire officials, who put a conservative estimate of the damage at "more than a million dollars," said "all kinds of computers, all kinds of typewriters and all kinds of file cabinets" were destroyed in the blaze.

Three persons -- a firefighter and two building maintenance workers -- suffered minor injuries in the fire, which broke out about 6:30 p.m.

Fire officials said they were investigating the cause of the blaze, but added that it did not appear to be arson.

The building, Crystal Mall No. 3 at 1931 Jefferson Davis Hwy., houses military offices on every floor and also contains a shopping mall in an underground area.

The shopping area is beneath a courtyard that the building shares with four other buildings and its location prevented firefighters from pulling a ladder truck to the front of the building where the fire was concentrated.

"I would have given my right arm to have a ladder truck there," Jenkins said.

Firefighters were forced to enter the building from the rear, make their way across the 150-foot wide structure and then break the large sealed windows from the inside to provide ventilation and help with smoke removal.

"There are big rooms with partitions," said Fire Capt. Charlie Marcus. "It's easy to get lost in a place like that. I have to make sure my men get out alive."

Jenkins said the unusually heavy smoke stretched firefighters' air supply tanks to the limit.

"They had to keep shifting back and forth for air," he said.

A lack of ceiling sprinklers in the area of the fire and the large number of locked doors further hampered firefighting efforts. "We couldn't get to the fire" because of the locked doors, Marcus said.

A lack of sprinkers was also a factor in an October 1984 fire that caused more than $20 million damage to the U.S. Postal Service Headquarters at L'Enfant Plaza in Southwest Washington.

Lt. Cmdr. Robert Milligan, who was on the fifth floor when the fire broke out on the floor below, said that smoke began "pouring in through the vents and we immediately began evacuating people."

Some occupants of offices on the lobby floor said they did not leave the building until nearly 7 p.m.

Jenkins said the building's ventilation system spread the smoke quickly to most of the 11 floors.

Fire damage was limited to the fourth floor, and there was less serious water damage to the floors below.

A Navy spokeswoman said last night that offices on the first floor and the fifth through 11th floors would be open as usual today.

However, she said, among personnel assigned to the second through fourth floors, only officers and division directors should report for work until further notice.

The spokeswoman said about 2,500 persons normally work in the building, about 200 on the fourth floor.

She was unable to say how many work on the second and third floors.

Last night, the fourth floor remained eerily dark while lights blazed Fire Cripples Navy Center Crystal City Offices Destroyed By Nancy Lewis Washington Post Staff Writer

A three-alarm fire burned out of control for more than 1 1/2 hours yesterday at the Navy's central accounting and financial center in Crystal City, causing extensive damage to the 11-story glass and concrete building.

Heavy black smoke that filled several floors of the building forced firefighters to crawl through a warren of office cubicles to battle the blaze, which was contained on the fourth floor.

"The smoke was so dense you couldn't find the fire," said Arlington Fire Battalion Chief Claude Jenkins. "It was nothing but a maze up there with locked doors and extremely heavy heat and smoke."

A Navy spokeswoman said last night that officials did not know the extent of damage to the department's financial records.

In 1973, a fire at a St. Louis storage facility destroyed millions of Army personnel records, many essential to applications for retirement and disability benefits. Many of the records, some of which dated from 1885, were not duplicated elsewhere.

Fire officials, who put a conservative estimate of the damage at "more than a million dollars," said "all kinds of computers, all kinds of typewriters and all kinds of file cabinets" were destroyed in the blaze.

Three persons -- a firefighter and two building maintenance workers -- suffered minor injuries in the fire, which broke out about 6:30 p.m.

Fire officials said they were investigating the cause of the blaze, but added that it did not appear to be arson.

The building, Crystal Mall No. 3 at 1931 Jefferson Davis Hwy., houses military offices on every floor and also contains a shopping mall in an underground area.

The shopping area is beneath a courtyard that the building shares with four other buildings and its location prevented firefighters from pulling a ladder truck to the front of the building where the fire was concentrated.

"I would have given my right arm to have a ladder truck there," Jenkins said.

Firefighters were forced to enter the building from the rear, make their way across the 150-foot wide structure and then break the large sealed windows from the inside to provide ventilation and help with smoke removal.

"There are big rooms with partitions," said Fire Capt. Charlie Marcus. "It's easy to get lost in a place like that. I have to make sure my men get out alive."

Jenkins said the unusually heavy smoke stretched firefighters' air supply tanks to the limit.

"They had to keep shifting back and forth for air," he said.

A lack of ceiling sprinklers in the area of the fire and the large number of locked doors further hampered firefighting efforts. "We couldn't get to the fire" because of the locked doors, Marcus said.

A lack of sprinkers was also a factor in an October 1984 fire that caused more than $20 million damage to the U.S. Postal Service Headquarters at L'Enfant Plaza in Southwest Washington.

Lt. Cmdr. Robert Milligan, who was on the fifth floor when the fire broke out on the floor below, said that smoke began "pouring in through the vents and we immediately began evacuating people."

Some occupants of offices on the lobby floor said they did not leave the building until nearly 7 p.m.

Jenkins said the building's ventilation system spread the smoke quickly to most of the 11 floors.

Fire damage was limited to the fourth floor, and there was less serious water damage to the floors below.

A Navy spokeswoman said last night that offices on the first floor and the fifth through 11th floors would be open as usual today.

However, she said, among personnel assigned to the second through fourth floors, only officers and division directors should report for work until further notice.

The spokeswoman said about 2,500 persons normally work in the building, about 200 on the fourth floor.

She was unable to say how many work on the second and third floors.

Last night, the fourth floor remained eerily dark while lights blazed on the building's other floors.

The courtyard in front of the massive building was strewn with broken glass. Jenkins said the damaged area stretches across the entire front of the building, but that most of the central section -- about 100 feet by 50 feet -- was destroyed.

A total of about 60 firefighters, 50 from Arlington and 10 from Alexandria, battled the blaze.

The injured firefighter, Kenneth Walker Jr., suffered burns on his hands. Two building employes, James Batch and Richard Devall, suffered smoke inhalation. All three were treated last night at National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation and later released.

Arlington fire officials ordered an overnight fire watch.

The Navy spokeswoman said Defense Department and General Service Administration investigators will begin today to study the blaze and resulting damage. CAPTION: Picture 1, Map. GRAPHICs/Two thru Four: A firefighter checks a window of the high-rise at 1931 Jefferson Davis Hwy., top, while Arlington firemen Robert Nau, lower left, rests after battling blaze. At right, a building maintenance worker is given oxygen after he inhaled smoke. By Charles Crockett for WP -- The Washington Post on the building's other floors.

The courtyard in front of the massive building was strewn with broken glass. Jenkins said the damaged area stretches across the entire front of the building, but that most of the central section -- about 100 feet by 50 feet -- was destroyed.

A total of about 60 firefighters, 50 from Arlington and 10 from Alexandria, battled the blaze.

The injured firefighter, Kenneth Walker Jr., suffered burns on his hands. Two building employes, James Batch and Richard Devall, suffered smoke inhalation. All three were treated last night at National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation and later released.

Arlington fire officials ordered an overnight fire watch.

The Navy spokeswoman said Defense Department and General Service Administration investigators will begin today to study the blaze and resulting damage.Map, Fire area. The Washington Post; Pictures 1 through 3, A firefighter checks a window of the high-rise at 1931 Jefferson Davis Hwy; Arlington firemen Robert Nau rests after battling blaze; and a building maintenance worker is given oxygen after he inhaled smoke. Photos by Charles Crockett for The Washington Post