Friday, March 26, 2004

RICHMOND — A four-alarm fire, fed by high winds, ripped through downtown yesterday, damaging or destroying scores of buildings and vehicles in a six-block area and threatening Virginia Commonwealth University.

One firefighter and a VCU security guard suffered minor smoke inhalation. There were no other reports of injuries in the blaze near the university’s campus, about one mile west of the state Capitol.

More than 60 firefighters from 12 fire department units from Richmond and surrounding counties struggled to put out the blaze, which erupted about 12.30 p.m. At one point, a fire engine close to the action burst into flame. The blaze was declared under control at 5:30 p.m.

“This is probably one of the worst fires we’ve seen in the city of Richmond,” said city Fire Chief Larry Tunstall.

Mayor Rudy McCollum called it the city’s worst fire in 30 years, noting that at least 19 commercial buildings, nine homes and 20 cars were damaged. Most of the firefighting power was concentrated near the VCU campus at Broad and Pine streets.

Police evacuated about 50 homes and several buildings as winds gusting up to 20 mph scattered flaming debris throughout downtown.

Among the buildings evacuated were a VCU dormitory, the campus bookstore and fine arts building, a parking deck, and two nearby public schools. The roof of the fine arts building was damaged by the blaze, VCU officials said.

The cause of the fire was unknown last night but was believed to have started in an apartment building that was under construction, a $4 million development that was slated to open for student housing in August.

VCU graduate student Andrekka Lanier, 23, had planned to move into those apartments along with nearly 200 other students but now must make other arrangements.

“It’s insane,” Miss Lanier told The Washington Times. “I wonder how many other apocalyptic events will happen at VCU this year.”

In the past 12 months, the city has experienced floods, a hurricane and a rare earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale.

VCU officials said the apartment project and planned retail development nearby were expected to cost $14 million, adding that the developer had spent up to $4 million on the project.

Concerns of the fire’s spread led officials to cut power to several city blocks, blacking out the Richmond Police Station on Grace Street.

Chief Tunstall said the city set up a “one-mile fly zone” to try and stop the blaze from spreading. In addition, firefighters would work into the night to secure old buildings on Broad Street, some of which are in danger of collapsing, Chief Tunstall said.

There was also a worry the fire would jump over Interstate 95 and snarl highway traffic, he said.

The American Red Cross offered help to victims, a church on Grace Street opened its doors as a shelter and displaced students were sent to VCU’s nearby basketball stadium.

The worst fires in Richmond’s history occurred in 1811 when 160 persons died in a blaze at a theater and in April 1865 when retreating Confederate troops set warehouses and armories ablaze to deny war material to the Union army. The Civil War fire, finally extinguished with the help of federal troops, caused widespread damage to the city and reportedly caused at least 40 deaths when a gunpowder magazine blew up.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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