HARPERS FERRY, W.VA. — The rustling noise at 3 a.m. Thursday sounded like a bear that had come looking for food. Laura Clark, who’d been reading in her living room, stepped outside onto her porch and peered into the darkness. Seeing nothing, she walked back in, but felt an urge to look once more. Then she spotted the smoke.
Clark ran up High Street, and there, from the top of a 150-foot outdoor stairway, she spotted a cluster of flames just larger than a campfire but spreading rapidly. She sprinted home to grab her phone and wake up her husband. “Fire!” Clark screamed at him as she called 911 and returned to the two nearby apartments.
“Get up! Get up! Get up!” she yelled, slamming her fist against their front doors. “You’ve got to get out!”
By the time the sunlight crept above the surrounding mountains and spilled onto this little town, the three-alarm blaze had ravaged a trio of buildings in the heart of the community’s cozy commercial district. Two residences and at least eight businesses were destroyed, but no one was injured.
The calamity resonated far beyond this town of 300, in large part because of Harpers Ferry’s momentous role in American history and its popularity as a tourist destination. The news trended on Facebook, with hundreds sending prayers and writing of their broken hearts.
For those who live on this picturesque cut of land where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers converge, the devastation was personal. The people know each other, and they owned, worked in or patronized the businesses that were destroyed.
“They were part of the experience of Harpers Ferry,” Clark said from her porch Thursday afternoon. She knew what the proprietors had invested into their shops, just as she knows what she and her husband have invested for nearly 20 years in theirs, the Outfitter, which is just up the road.
“I’m concerned that they may not come back,” she said, exhausted and demoralized. “I’ve got to get some sleep and spread some optimism.”
The cause of the blaze is still under investigation, according to West Virginia assistant state fire marshal Jason Baltic. He said he hopes his team knows something by Friday, but hot spots were still flaring up in one of the buildings as late as 5 p.m. Thursday.
Harpers Ferry is best known as the place where abolitionist John Brown attempted to start a slave revolt in 1859 by raiding the town armory, but it was also a crucial spot in the struggle between the North and the South during the Civil War.
“Antietam was one day. Gettysburg was three days. Harpers Ferry was 1,400 consecutive days of the American Civil War,” said Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Control of the area changed hands eight times and, as a result, it was the scene of relentless destruction.
“Fire,” he said, “has been a constant here in Harpers Ferry.”
But this one was the first of any significance that Frye could recall since 1979, when a building in the national park burned.
By Thursday afternoon, the scene smelled of charred plastic and had become a spectacle for tourists.
They stopped to read the ads outside Private Quinn’s Pub, a popular bar in what was originally an armory built in the 1830s. It’s named after the only U.S. Marine killed in John Brown’s raid.
“Best Reuben and Fish N’ Chips in Town,” read one ad. In front of it, another written in chalk had been added: “SORRY CLOSED.”
Some people stopped to take pictures and shoot videos. A few offered their sympathy.
“Keep enjoying our wonderful town, sir,” a local man, his voice strained, said to a passing visitor.
The only lives lost were those of Charlma Quarles’s cats, Mylo and Chai. She had spent the night in the District, where she works for the federal government.
Thursday afternoon a friend drove her back to Harpers Ferry, her home for the past three years. Eyes glassy, she stood in the street beneath her apartment and said that, essentially, she had lost everything.
“I have what I have on,” she said, motioning to her gray dress and brown boots.
Barbara Pusateri has owned the building that housed the two apartments and five of the businesses for 42 years.
“It’s part of my life,” she said Thursday, wandering a sidewalk strewn with soot and shattered glass along Potomac Street.
Her tenants included a sandwich shop, a gift shop, a furniture and crafts shop, a vintage jewelry shop and a combination dog accessories store and photo studio.
She had gotten a call about the fire at 4:15 a.m. and scrambled to get dressed, but Pusateri’s husband stopped her.
“What can you do?” he asked.
At midday, Martha Ehlman stood in the MARC station parking lot, where she stared across the street at the gutted remains of her “baby,” the fair-trade jewelry store she had run for the past five years. As if Ehlman were a widow in a receiving line, friends and customers approached her one by one, offering hugs and condolences.
“We’re very devastated,” one woman said.
“We know how valuable these businesses are to the community,” said another, handing Ehlman a blue envelope the woman had bought from the store. It was meant to hold prayer flags, and on its front was the word “PEACE.”
In a large black bin next to Ehlman were the 100 or so items — among 7,000 in her stock — that survived the blaze and were recovered by firefighters. Propped against the container was a blackened sign speckled with melted plastic.
“Tenfold,” it said, a reference to a Biblical parable about giving and receiving.
The store had held more than $100,000 in merchandise, Ehlman said, but only about a fifth of it was insured.
In her bin were iron jewelry holders and rosewood containers and dozens of rings, each made in faraway places with exotic materials: tagua nut, cow bone, goat horn.
She also found a simple bronze bracelet her daughter had made before leaving for college five years ago. Ehlman never could sell it, and now she was happy for that.
Late Thursday, two of Ehlman’s regulars approached her in the parking lot. They were both dog walkers and often came by with their animals.
“Take anything,” she said, motioning to the bin. “I can’t sell it.”
One of them picked out a beaded, olive wood necklace made in Jordan. The price tag was still on it: $22.
The woman gave her the cash.
A few minutes later, she returned with a handful of change. She’d forgotten to pay the tax.
Dana Hedgpeth and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.