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Destructive fire seemed no threat

Witnesses say roofers' fight against small blaze appeared comical at first

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2004

Before it spread to consume much of a historic building at Front and Seward streets, a small fire on a canopy roof Sunday didn't seem like a big deal, witnesses said.

Amid the machinery drone from the Wednesday cleanup of the fire were some who saw it begin with two young men and a propane torch atop the first floor.

Keith Schroth, who helps out at the Viking bar across Front Street, said he had been watching from the second floor "a couple of kids working with tar on the overhang," clarifying that the two were probably in their early 20s.

"It was kind of comical actually," said Robert Rodman of Percy's Liquor Store next to the Viking. Agreeing with Schroth's descriptions of the men's ages, he said some of what he saw reminded him of Keystone Cops. At one point it appeared one of the workers suffered from a hotfoot, he said.

Not until later in the evening, as thick black smoke poured from the structure, did Rodman realize how bad the fire was.

He was still vacuuming soot from his store Wednesday.

The building housed numerous shops and restaurants. The demolition contractor, Dave Hanna, said Tuesday that the first floor of the building appears to be in good shape.

The city issued a permit for work on the canopy in June. It didn't list a contractor. Instead it listed owner Tom Huntington.

At the cleanup Wednesday, Huntington confirmed that the work was being done under his permit for canopy work. When asked for the name of the project contractor or who was hired to do the work he said he had no comment.

City Manager Rod Swope said Tuesday that he hoped to complete an investigation into what caused the fire by the end of the week.

Schroth said the canopy work had been going on for a few days. He described the two young men on the roof laying tar paper, heating it with a torch. When a small fire started, they tried to put it out with a small fire extinguisher.

Between 3 and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, "we didn't think anything of it," Rodman said. "There was a little bit of smoke coming out of a corner."

By 4:30 p.m., the block was closed off, he added. He went home when the power was cut to businesses near the fire at 5 p.m. "It got worse and worse."

Rodman said the fact that there was no wind proved lucky, helping limit the blaze to the corner building. The building next door to the fire on Front Street didn't burn, he noted.

But recalling Sunday, he said the clear, dry day must have played a role in the blaze. "Any other year in Juneau, it wouldn't have happened because it's so wet," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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