It wasn’t as bad as the first time.
Shortly before 7 p.m. Saturday, Capital City Fire/Rescue entered a building familiar to everyone in Juneau: The Gastineau Apartments were on fire again.
“I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me,” said building owner James Barrett as he stood on the sidewalk in front of the Triangle Club and watched firefighters explore the fire-blackened building.
Barrett, dressed in a T-shirt and utilitarian pants, had been working on another project when he got the word that the apartment complex had caught fire. This fire was smaller than the first Gastineau blaze, but it still drew a crowd of onlookers who lined the sidewalks and held cellphones documenting the scene.
No injuries were immediately reported.
A faint smell of smoke lingered on Franklin Street, but it was nowhere near as dense as the stench that overwhelmed downtown Juneau in 2012.
On Nov. 5, 2012, a towering blaze engulfed the building at 127 South Franklin Street, driving out the building’s residents and creating a scene visible from Douglas Island. The Gastineau Apartments are actually a complex of three connected buildings shaped like an L-shaped Tetris block. The portion of the complex that burned in 2012 faces Franklin Street and makes up the long part of the “L”. According to eyewitnesses and photographs documenting the fire, Saturday’s incident appears to have started in the short side of the “L,” a section of the complex away from Franklin Street that was smoke-damaged but largely unburned.
Barrett said the building is without power and water; where the fire started, “there’s a bunch of mattresses up there,” Barrett said. “I have a feeling this wasn’t a ... it was probably squatters up there.”
Firefighters subsequently confirmed the presence of squatters.
John Wahl, working the counter at Alaska Liquor Cache across the street from the Gastineau Apartments, saw the fire develop. “At first, we thought it was this building,” he said, gesturing toward the Seward Building, which houses Kindred Post and Mt. Juneau Trading Post.
Wahl estimated the fire started between 6:50 p.m. and 6:55 p.m.
Steve Bower, a bartender at the Triangle Club, had a front-row seat for the fire and provided a similar time estimate. “It happened a few minutes before 7 ... and by 7:15 it was pretty much over,” he said.
He described how the fire appeared to start in the top floor of a section of the complex overlooking Gunakadeit Park, next to Rawn Way and Gastineau Avenue. Pieces of burning debris fell from the window before firefighters played a hose on the flaming window. “The fire guys got here rather quickly,” he said.
While Bower had a front-row seat, for the incident, Michael Holman and Julie Oliva had the balcony view. From the ninth floor of the Baranof Hotel, they took in the scene as firefighers arrived and extinguished the fire. Holman said the pair saw the smoke billowing from roof vents: “Everything coming out of the vents was kind of a light, white gray smoke, but you could see some black smoke billowing off the side of the building over there [toward Rawn Way], and it just kept intensifying and intensifying, that black smoke.”
Holman and Oliva were visiting Juneau on business. “We missed our flight; we shouldn’t even be here,” he said.
After speaking to the Empire, Barrett was admitted to the site of the fire. “I went in and checked it out,” he said. “It was in one of the units that was undamaged from the previous fire ... it’s burned out.”
Talking by phone, Barrett tried to stay optimistic. “It could’ve been a lot worse,” he said. “Just looking at it, it really could’ve been a lot worse.”