Throngs of bystanders took a few minutes out of their afternoons last Monday to watch as the roof of the Georgetown Branch of the D.C. Public Library collapsed in on itself amidst tongues of flames and jets of water. The three-alarm fire, the second of the day after the blaze that destroyed Eastern Market, required 200 firefighters to subdue it.
The exact cause of the fire is still unknown.
Additional firefighters had to be called in from Arlington, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties to cover personnel shortages.
In addition to its regular collection, the Georgetown branch was home to the Peabody room, a priceless compilation of records and artifacts detailing the history of the Georgetown neighborhood.
Mark Livingston, an off-duty D.C. firefighter, was standing outside the burning building at 1:00 p.m., watching the ladder trucks pour water into the building from above. He said he was driving down Wisconsin Ave. a little after noon on Monday when he saw flames and smoke billowing up from the roof of the library and called 911.
Fire trucks and emergency vehicles outnumbered regular civilian traffic for a two-block radius for much of the afternoon, lacing the area with a net of high-pressure gray hoses as firefighters converged on the area by the dozen.
Drivers honked angrily as 35th St. became bloated with detoured traffic from Wisconsin Ave., with some turning around in the driveway of Georgetown Visitation School to find an alternate route around the area.
Alan Etter, a spokesperson for D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services on the scene, said that firefighters had been inside the building earlier but had to evacuate because of the instability of the building.
“The roof had begun to crumble and collapse around them,” he said.
Tony Dorsey, another Fire and EMS spokesman, said that strong winds were responsible for the voracity of the fire, feeding the flames and blowing embers around the attic of the building, where the fire began. The 12-person staff of the library, as well as all patrons, had just evacuated the building by the time that fire department personnel arrived.
“Everyone escaped in time, right as firemen were entering the building,” Monica Lewis, spokeswoman for D.C. Public Libraries, said. She credited the quick exit to the branches’ routine fire drills.
The fire was already raging by the time that firefighters arrived, but they lost additional time because one hydrant next to the building was not working, according to Dorsey, and had to move to other nearby hydrants.
Charles Kiely, Assistant General Manager of D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, said that the firefighters had no significant water problems. He said that they were using 4,000 gallons per minute, the maximum capacity of the system, and estimated that they were using between eight and nine hydrants. The one non-functional hydrant did not significantly impact their ability to combat the blaze, he said. The broken hydrant had been identified earlier by work crews but was overlooked by administrative staff.
“We had a clerical error and screwed up,” Kiely said.
Fortunately for historians, the Peabody room escaped the disaster mostly unscathed. Dorsey said that 95 percent of the collection was saved. According to a library press release, library employees, as well as contractors from a document-preservation company called Belfor Property Restoration, were able to re-enter the building early on Tuesday and began loading water-sogged records into refrigerated trailers to prevent mold from setting in.
Though no timetable has yet been set, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office estimates reconstruction will cost between $15 and $20 million. In the meantime, local residents will still be able to get their reading fix. According to the library release, “A bookmobile is being readied to serve the Georgetown community while efforts get underway to establish a temporary library.”