- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A sense of resolve and relief emerged yesterday from the two D.C. landmarks heavily damaged by separate fires.

D.C. officials said the second-floor room of the Georgetown library branch that held rare documents about D.C. history was partially damaged by water in the Monday afternoon blaze but escaped fire and smoke damage.

“I know there are so many other worse things that could happen, especially involving loss of life,” said Jerry A. McCoy, the librarian and archivist of the Peabody Room collection. “But to me these were living, breathing human beings because of the information they represented of past lives.”

Among the treasures were a collection of historical records on almost every private residence in Georgetown dating back to the 1790s, a copy of the Maryland Gazette newspaper that reported on the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and 50 volumes of books that were printed in Georgetown from 1796 to 1830, including one of the first gardening books printed in the United States.

“I can’t even imagine what each one of those individual books is worth,” Mr. McCoy. said. “You probably can’t replace some of them with all the money in the world because they don’t exist anywhere else.”

Mr. McCoy, who has been the librarian of the Peabody Room for seven years, said he wept yesterday while reflecting on the damaged documents, paintings, photographs and letters. He did not know how much the collection was worth.

“We become very emotionally attached to this material,” Mr. McCoy said. “We sort of think of ourselves as caretakers of this material. That made me cry, too, to think of the future generation of researchers who might not have the chance to look through it.”

Mr. McCoy and others expected the worst when the fire started in the attic at about 12:30 p.m., destroying much of the roof before firefighters extinguished the blaze.

However, they were more optimistic yesterday morning when they joined a preservation-company crew in removing 50 boxes of wet but intact documents, letters, maps and photographs — about 50 percent of the collection.

They returned in the afternoon to recover the rest. Nothing in the collection was stored digitally or on microfiche, Mr. McCoy said.

The building was undergoing renovations to windows and outside trim. The cause of the fire remains unknown and the investigation is ongoing, said D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter.

He also said the Wisconsin Avenue side of the building is structurally unsound.

Firefighters were delayed only by “seconds” by the two inoperable fire hydrants closest to the library, Mr. Etter said. They simply attached hoses to surrounding fire hydrants.

Jerry Johnson, general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), said crews are investigating what caused the hydrant problem.

“We don’t know yet,” Mr. Johnson said. “All we know is [one] hydrant wasn’t working.”

He said WASA crews are constantly making inspections and repairs to prevent such problems. WASA is alerted about fires to make certain water supplies are in the area, he also said.

Mr. Johnson said a nearby, 6-inch-wide water main was broken, but that “it would not have been a contributor to the problem.”

Said Mr. Etter: “What would have made a difference is if the people in the building had called the fire department sooner.”

The library had no sprinkler system, which is common in libraries because water damages the books. But many libraries have a direct line to the fire department in case of a fire, and this library did not, library officials said.

Most of the books on the first floor of the two-street library will be discarded if they are damaged, said Mark Greek, who works in the Washingtoniana division of the D.C. Public Library system and is the designated on-site recovery liaison for the fire.

The Library of Congress is offering advice and sending staff members to Georgetown. And the District of Columbia Public Library Foundation has established a “Georgetown Neighborhood Library Recovery and Restoration Fund.”

Mr. Greek said the library has already received dozens of calls from people wanting to donate.

As officials began the recovery process at the library, on R Street Northwest, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced plans to rebuild the fire-damaged Eastern Market within two years and establish a temporary structure to assist displaced vendors.

“We expect this to be a fast-moving project,” said Mr. Fenty, a Democrat. He said a new venue has not been found and that residents and city officials will discuss possibilities and other market-related issues during community meetings within the next 10 days.

Mr. Fenty said the city’s chief financial officer, Natwar M. Ghandi, will identify “supplemental revenue” next week that the administration will propose using to assist vendors and to rebuild the market, in the 200 block of Seventh Street Southeast.

Officials said the market and library’s sturdy construction saved them, despite not having sprinkler systems.

Mr. Etter said such “heavy timber” construction is found in older buildings across the city.

He also said an electrical short caused the 1 a.m. fire at the Capitol Hill neighborhood market. The damage is estimated at $5 million to $10 million.

Neither building was required to have sprinkler systems.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said he will recommend adding systems to buildings without them.

“Something like 98 percent of buildings with fire-suppression systems don’t burn down,” he said. “I would like to think that I always advocate [sprinkler systems], but there’s a financial reality.”

Mr. Fenty said some of the supplemental funds would pay for systems in the rebuilt market.

He also announced City Administrator Dan Tangherlini and Harold Pettigrew, chief of staff for the city’s Department of Small and Local Business Development, will lead the market-rebuilding project, which is expected to take 18 to 24 months.

Melvin Inman, 55, who ran Market Poultry at the market for 32 years said he is cautiously optimistic and hopes the mayor follows through with the plan.

“I’m just hoping we’re not just going to be given a bunch of forms to sign and told to stand in line,” he said.

Quest Skinner, 29, who sells art at the market said she was pleased with the speed of the mayor’s response and thinks she should be able to recover from the loss.

“I’m very glad a lot of things are going to be coming together quickly,” she said.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said the Saturday flea market would continue to operate and this year’s 44th annual Eastern Market Day would take place this weekend as scheduled.

“It’s a heartbreaker,” said Muriel Martin-Wein, 66, who comes to the market daily. “I wish the restoration could happen a little sooner.”

• Arlo Wagner contributed to this report.

Photo Gallery

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide