HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Fire companies from West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia battled an early Thursday morning blaze that claimed four buildings in Harpers Ferry.
Chief Ronnie Shutts of the Friendship Volunteer Fire Department said his company was the first on the scene when they received a call from dispatch at 3:16 a.m. about a fire on the 100 block of High Street, near the John Brown Museum. Shutts said by the time the first crew arrived, four buildings and a wooden stairway leading down the hill from a pavilion to Potomac Street were engulfed in flames.
Businesses affected by the blaze include The Vintage Lady, the Village Shop at Harpers Ferry, Sophie and Bailey’s, La Niche Boutique, Upstairs Downstairs Sandwich Shop, Tenfold Fair Trade, Private Quinn’s Pub and Data Direct Inc. Two apartments were also involved in the fire.
The businesses and apartments were within three of the four damaged buildings; the fourth building was an outbuilding next to one of the structures.
Shutts said 80 firefighters from 25 fire and rescue squads in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia responded to the scene of the fire, working in shifts to keep them from getting exhausted by the heat.
“We had a couple heat-related injuries (among firefighters) on the scene,” he said. “They were treated here, and they’re back in service.”
The Friendship Volunteer Fire Department commanded the scene, with assistance from numerous other units from Jefferson and Berkeley counties, as well as Loudoun County, Virginia; Frederick County, Virginia; Washington County, Maryland; and Frederick County, Maryland.
The Harpers Ferry Police Department, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and the Jefferson County Emergency Service were also on scene.
By about 5:30 a.m., Shutts said fire units were able to contain the fire in two buildings. He said the West Virginia State Fire Marshal has been called to investigate the fire and hopes that a cause for the fire will be found later today.
Shutts said it took approximately two hours to put out the fire in the two buildings at the bottom of the stairway, and said it took crews slightly longer to extinguish the fire in the other two buildings.
The fire was completely out at approximately 10:30 a.m., he said.
Numerous fire companies from the three states worked into the afternoon, clearing debris and examining the buildings affected by the fire.
“This is the first fire we’ve seen in the historic section in years,” Shutts said.
Hit to the economy
Cindy Dunn, owner of The Vintage Lady, said the fire is devastating for the town.
“I’m very thankful no one was hurt and I’m thankful for the fire departments that have worked so hard,” she said.
Dunn said customers from 48 states and 30 countries had visited her store in recent months.
“Local people would be shocked to realize the visitorship that comes into Harpers Ferry – not just for the park, but for our businesses,” she said.
Martha Elman, owner of Ten Fold Fair Trade, said she was feeling “shock, sadness (and) disbelief,” but was thankful that no one was injured. She said two cats were lost in one of the apartments.
“I feel badly for my employees,” Elman said. “As a small business owner, that’s something I can’t fix for them. I can’t answer their questions.”
According to Annette Gavin, CEO of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the fire is “devastating and emotional” for the people who live, work and visit Harpers Ferry.
“These people lost their livelihood,” Gavin said, speaking about the owners of the businesses that were destroyed in the fire. “I hope the community can do whatever we can to help them rebuild and come back bigger and better. It’s going to be a tough road, but this is a great community. They are good people and they rally together. If anyone can get through this, this little village can.”
Joetta Breeden, a member of the Harpers Ferry Merchants Association who co-owns The Coffee Mill and the Coach House Grill, said her businesses were not affected by the fire, but many of her friends and nearby neighbors “lost everything.”
Breeden said the Merchants Association will do whatever it can to aid those who lost their businesses, but said at this point, people are still recovering from the incident and are trying to figure out what could be done.
“This is so sad and so devastating. We just stood there and watched the buildings burn, and there was nothing we could do about it,” Breeden said. “That was the worst thing, seeing people you know lose everything and knowing there’s nothing you can do.”
The fire also claimed a pavilion on the stairwell between High and Potomac streets, built by members of the Merchants Association, that opened as a public gathering space in November 2013.
Park spared from disaster
According to Dennis Frye, chief historian with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, none of the buildings destroyed in the fire were historically significant to the Civil War.
“Fortunately, nothing from the Civil War era was extensively damaged,” he said. “Most of the other buildings (in Lower Town) were built between 1830 and 1840.”
Frye said the park was open to visitors Thursday morning, but rangers escorted visitors to areas of the park outside of the Lower Town district. Visitors attended ranger-led programs at Bolivar Heights battlefield, the Murphy Farm and Camp Hill.
“The park was never closed and the visitors center remained open,” Frye said. “(By the afternoon) the exhibits museums, living history exhibits and the shuttle service were operating as usual.”
None of the facilities in the National Park were damaged by the fire, he said.
Frye said fire has been a significant part of Harpers Ferry’s history. He said many of the original buildings in town were burned during the Civil War.
The last fire in Lower Town that Frye can recall was on May 20, 1979, when an electrical fire destroyed the park visitors center – now the bookstore on Shenandoah Street. The visitors center wasn’t re-opened until 1983, he said.
“Today, my heart goes out to our neighbors in the merchant district,” Frye said. “It’s a sad day for Harpers Ferry.”
Boil water advisory
A boil water notice is in effect for lower town Harpers Ferry until further notice. In order to decontaminate water, residents are asked to bring tap water to a rolling boil, boil for one minute, and cool before using. Boiled or bottled water should be used for drinking, making ice, washing dishes, brushing teeth, giving to pets, and preparing food until further notice.
Lower Town Harpers Ferry includes the areas of beginning at 180 High St. down to the river, all of Church Street, all of Potomac Street and all of Shenandoah Street.
Anyone with questions should contact Harpers Ferry Water Works at 304-535-2206.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin released an official statement Thursday afternoon expressing his thoughts and prayers for those affected by the fire.
“Today’s news about the fire in Harpers Ferry is heartbreaking for our state, the community and those who call it home,” Tomblin said in the statement. “Joanne and I send our thoughts and prayers to all those whose livelihoods have been affected. Officials from our Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the State Fire Marshal’s Office are at the scene to assist local emergency responders. We will do all we can to help in the recovery process and to restore these historic buildings that tens of thousands of people visit and explore every year.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., tweeted “My thoughts go out to WVians impacted by the devastating fire in Harpers Ferry. Thankful that all are safe this morning,” while Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., tweeted that she was “(s)addened by the news of this morning’s fire in Harpers Ferry that destroyed local businesses, homes & apartments.”
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant tweeted her support for the community, writing “Heart broken about #HarpersFerry. One of my favorite places. West Virginians are resilient tough. We will come back from this fire.”
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also tweeted about the fire, writing “My heart goes out to my neighbors and businesses in Harpers Ferry who were impacted by the fire. Harpers Ferry is such an incredible gem.”
In another tweet, Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., said his thoughts and prayers are with the community and extended an offer of assistance through his Martinsburg field office.
Greg Vaughn, mayor of Harpers Ferry, said he was “disheartened” for the community, especially those affected by the fire.
“I am thankful that no one was injured, and I’m also very thankful for the outpouring of concern from everyone and the courageous efforts of our public safety officers, who responded to the fire from jurisdictions all over (the tri-state area),” he said.
Vaughn said Thursday’s fire was one of the biggest and most destructive fires in Harpers Ferry in recent memory.
“I’m uplifted by all of the concern,” he said. “This is a national, historic loss affecting all of us. What was lost today is irreplaceable.”
– Henry Culvyhouse can be contacted at 304-263-8931, ext. 215, or [email protected] Mary Stortstrom can be contacted at 304-725-6581, [email protected] or www.twitter.com/mstortstromJN. Editor Dave Emke also contributed to this story.