Blaze destroys Historic church

Holy Trinity, McPhetres Hall, 1 home destroyed Neighborhood evacuated but no one hurt

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2006

An intense fire annihilated Juneau's second oldest church and a downtown home, blasting through the Gold Street neighborhood early Sunday morning.

No people were hurt in the 4:30 a.m. fire, but a stunned Episcopal congregation lost its beloved Holy Trinity church, which also played host to numerous Juneau arts and community events.

Next door to Holy Trinity, Shelby Edwards lost his home, his Bayliner boat and possibly a cat.

Edwards escaped without injury, along with his fiancee, his 10-year-old daughter and his daughter's friend, who had spent the night. His basement tenant, Tom Walls, also fled his home unharmed.

"We're fortunate we got out," Edwards said Sunday. "I have no idea how it started."

Neighbors between Gold and Harris streets also evacuated, as they felt the heat intensifying and cracking their windows.

"Honestly, it was terrifying," said James Barrett, owner of the Bergmann Hotel and a couple of nearby houses.

Eyewitnesses - including Vicki Campbell, who has lived on Third Street for about 30 years - first caught sight of the flames after being awakened by a loud explosion.

"I got right up because it didn't sound good, whatever it was," Campbell said.

To Campbell and other witnesses, the fire appeared to have started near the Edwards house and a boat next to the house. Within five to 10 minutes of the explosion, the flames had spread to McPhetres Hall, Campbell said.

Though rumors spread throughout the day about what may have triggered the blaze, Juneau firefighters said it was still too early to determine where and how the fire began.

"No determination has been made at this time," Capital City Fire Chief Eric Mohrmann said.

The fire was called in to 911 at about 4:40 a.m. and within 10 minutes Capital City Fire and Rescue was at the scene. At that point the fire was between the home and the church.

At first fire crews attacked the fire from the street because it was difficult to access the back of the houses, firefighters said.

"I don't think (approaching from the back) would have made any difference anyway," Mohrmann said. "The fire was running the entire length of the buildings."

The fire quickly penetrated the attic spaces and walls of both wooden buildings. The church's annex, McPhetres Hall also was consumed. At that time, fire crews determined the buildings could not be saved and acted defensively to protect neighboring buildings.

The downtown area lacks firebreaks, allowing fires to spread quickly, Mohrmann said. Old, wood construction and lack of space between buildings make it very difficult to stop flames from jumping from structure to structure. Mohrmann credited a concrete wall behind the church and the hall for saving up to five houses and the Bergmann Hotel.

Though firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings, the intense heat rattled and cracked neighborhood windows and melted some vinyl siding on the Bergmann Hotel. Candles on Campbell's bedroom window sill melted, she said.

Mohrmann guesses the fire did $2 million in damage to the destroyed buildings, nearby buildings and cars parked on the street.

While fighting the fire, pressure from the smoke within blew out a window in the church, shooting glass across the street.

The heat of the fire ignited poles carrying power to the neighborhood and transmission lines to the rest of Juneau. City police asked the company to turn off power to the area surrounding the fire at 5:02 a.m., which is standard practice in all fires, said Gayle Wood, AEL&P's office manager. A few minutes later, the Alaska Electric Light and Power Co. shut off power to the entire city of Juneau.

At 5:59, the substation feeding downtown Juneau was shut down. Then, to protect Juneau's main transmission line, the entire electrical grid was shut down at 6:15 a.m., cutting off power from downtown to Auke Bay.

If the transmission line had gone down, the town could have been without power for as long as six hours, Wood said. Instead, most of Juneau had its power restored in less than an hour to an hour and 45 minutes, she said. Six buildings near the fire were left without power until later in the morning.

The entire neighborhood block, including the three-story Bergmann Hotel, was evacuated at about 6 a.m.

"They pounded on the doors and said, 'Everyone get out of here. Fire,'" said Marc Morgan, who was staying on the second floor. His room's window faced the blaze.

"I looked out the window, and all I could see was fire," Morgan said.

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The fire was under control by 10 a.m., Mohrmann said. Water from the hoses froze on the streets and in the branches of nearby trees. On Sunday night, firefighters were still working to put out the last remaining hot spots, and anticipated remaining at the scene until 10 a.m.

Though about "99.9 percent" of the fire was extinguished, Mohrmann said the fire crews were continuing to work four-hour shifts to make sure it didn't flare up again.

• Editor Lori Thomson contributed to this report.

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