Customers, neighbors and employees Thursday struggled to come to terms with the fact that a beloved general hardware store was no more, the victim of a four-alarm fire that destroyed the 93-year-old Capitol Hill institution.
What little remained of Frager's Hardware after the fire Wednesday evening was a far cry from what its patrons remember. Windows were blown out, the shattered blue-green glass covering the sidewalk along the store. The white "True Value" sign above the entrance had turned dark black, while an American flag that normally hung above the front door was singed and wrapped around its pole.
Looking at the store's blackened remains, Frager's garden man, Andrew Meleng, pointed to the first floor.
"The roof is on the first floor, which means the first and second floors are probably in the basement," he said. "I could sit here and cry my heart out. I want to, but I won't."
As firefighters picked through smoldering remnants, passers-by stopped to gawk at the charred brick shell that was once their go-to store for fix-its and friendly visits.
"We've lost a part of our lives," said Celeste McCall, a Capitol Hill resident who has been a frequent customer of Frager's with her husband, Pete, for 42 years. "We were just coming here today to buy charcoal, of all things."
Wearing a black and white Frager's T-shirt, Mr. McCall nodded his head, adding that oddly, the couple's most recent purchase from the store was a smoke detector.
About 200 firefighters from the D.C. area responded to the blaze, which started at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and escalated from a two-alarm to a four-alarm fire before the sun went down.
While fire officials have not identified the cause of the fire, employees working in the store said it started in the receiving area, where wood and cement supplies were kept.
Jack Rush was one of the employees who attempted to subdue the flames early.
"We tried to fight it down but it was bad," Mr. Rush said. "We couldn't see anything. It was completely filled with smoke. We couldn't see with our flashlights."
Four-alarm fires for the District are few and far between. The last one was in 2007 at an Adams Morgan condominium building that injured two firefighters. Two firefighters also received minor injuries at Frager's.
Just blocks from Frager's, a three-alarm fire gutted the East Hall of Eastern Market in 2007, displacing merchants until the city rebuilt the historic landmark and reopened it six months later.
Frager's was more than a store for many of the people standing across the street on Thursday watching firefighters pick through the mess.
Southeast resident Jean Barnes could barely contain her gasps as she looked at the destroyed building.
"I just can't believe it," she said. "Everybody went there. My husband is here all the time, and when I called him and told him he said he couldn't believe it."
Store employees said the community had already reached out, offering support and cheers for rebuilding. Restaurants offered free meals to hardware store employees, as well as part-time jobs until they can get back on their feet. The Capitol Hill Community Foundation established a donation fund on its website, as well.
And while it might be some time before Frager's can reopen its doors, Mr. Meleng shared the sentiments of his co-workers and community.
"We've survived World War II, hurricanes, storms, Snowmageddon. We suffered through 9-11 and power outages," he said. "We're going to survive this. We do know how to fix things."
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