Faulty electrical equipment is being blamed for a Christmas Eve fire that destroyed four downtown businesses, but investigators still are working to determine the precise cause and origin of the fire.
Fire Chief Jim McSwain said this morning that the fire began near electrical meters and breakers at The Chapman antique shop, 819 Vt.
An electrical expert is studying the meters and breakers to determine exactly what happened, he said.
McSwain said fire department investigators estimated the loss in the fire totaled $330,900.
The blaze, which raged out of control for two hours, destroyed The Chapman, the Miller Print Shop, 821 Vt., and a three-story building housing Alley Cat Records, 817 Vt., and Systems Integration Inc., 815 Vt.
McSWAIN BROKE down damage estimates, based on assessed value of the properties and interviews with the owners. He said the buildings housing The Miller Print Shop and The Chapman sustained a total of $35,000 damage and $80,000 to the contents. The building housing Systems Integration Inc. and Alley Cat Records sustained structural damage estimated at $51,400 and $120,000 to the contents.
Also damaged was Headmasters of Lawrence, directly north of the fire site, which sustained an estimated $7,500 water damage; and businesses in the Vermont Street Station, directly south of the fire site, which sustained $37,000 damage to computer equipment, interior decoration and the structure. The Vermont Street Station shares a wall with the print shop.
McSWAIN SAID a team of four investigators three from the Lawrence Fire Department and one from the state fire marshal's office investigated the fire.
Local businessman and City Commissioner Bob Schumm, owner of the building housing Alley Cat Records and Systems Integration Inc., said he was using about one-fifth of the three-story building for storage for his businesses.
This morning, he attended a briefing by McSwain and said afterward he was pleased with the job done by Lawrence firefighters, both in fighting the blaze and in their investigation. But he said, "I believe the damage to my building will be greater than their estimate."
McSwain said investigators determined the fire started in the middle rear section of The Chapman, near a stairwell leading to the second floor.
McSwain said The Chapman building had last been inspected by fire inspectors early in 1990.
"We had identified in inspections some electrical problems but not specifically in this area," he said. The problems were primarily in extension cords and lighting, he said.
HE USED diagrams to show the placement of electrical meters and breaker boxes near the stairwell, and said investigators still were not sure if the fire began in the electrical equipment or in wiring nearby. The stairwell was on the north side of the building.
McSwain said, "Patrons and customers at Alley Cat (Records) smelled smoke and saw smoke coming out of the second floor" of The Chapman at the same time fire trucks began arriving. The first alarm was called in by a firefighter about 2:35 p.m.
"When it was discovered, it was rolling out the door and the window of The Chapman," he said. "When the flames whipped out, it just went in both directions" across a wooden canopy that stretched across the rear of The Chapman and Miller Print Shop.
He said firefighters upon entering The Chapman and Miller Print Shop were greeted by intense heat and fire that already had spread toward the front of The Chapman.
McSwain said fire had spread to all three buildings within about 10 minutes of the first alarm.
"It was beyond the capability that we had," he said.
ON DEC. 26, McSwain ordered Schumm to raze his building's north and east walls. Demolition of the building, constructed in the Civil War era, began Dec. 27.
Work proceeded slowly to protect the building to the north. The building, housing Headmasters of Lawrence, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The fire was reported at 2:35 p.m. Christmas Eve after firefighters at Station No. 1, Eighth and Kentucky, noticed smoke in the alley in the 800 block of Vermont.
At 4:30 p.m., McSwain declared the fire under control. But the blaze continued to burn through Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day. Firefighters remained at the scene until Dec. 27, pumping water on hot spots and watching for flareups.