Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Fire destroys Georgetown history


Flames spread between buildings along Main Street

By David G. Eck and Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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About 150 firefighters fought the Georgetown fire.
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        GEORGETOWN, Ohio — Fifty-foot flames destroyed a block of historic Main Street buildings before dawn Monday and left residents of this small Ohio village stunned.

        “You feel so helpless when you see how the fire spreads from building to building,” Mayor John Jandes said. “There was a lot of history in that building. The history went with it.”

        But he's counting on community spirit to get through the loss. The fire ravaged buildings that housed law offices, apartments, a financial business and the village's twice-a-week newspaper.

        “Being a small town, that's going to help us,” the mayor said. “We always bounce back.”

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        The staff of The News Democrat, an institution in this Brown County village 40 miles east of downtown Cincinnati since 1888, kept working despite their destroyed offices.

        Staff members set up shop at a sister publication in West Union and in the publisher's home, and they intend to meet Wednesday's deadline.

        Reporter Jennifer Hart watched Monday as firefighters dug through the starkly charred tim ber, melted metal and sooted brick — all that was left of the fire-wrecked buildings that dated back as far as the late 1800s.

        “It's still a story we've got to cover,” Mrs. Hart said. “We're trying to keep it business as usual.”

        Aerial fire equipment, which shot out 1,000 gallons of water per minute, continued mid-morning to tackle hot spots in the rubble that was once law offices. “I feel like I've walked and run a thousand miles. It was disastrous,” said Joe Brookbank, chief of Georgetown's fire department.

        Damage was estimated at more than $1 million.

        The fire was a few blocks from the restored boyhood home of President Ulysses S. Grant, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places along with several other downtown buildings.

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A block of buildings was destroyed.
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        Firefighters are investigating the cause but believe that it began in the newspaper offices shortly after 3 a.m. and quickly spread.

        Philip Johnson, who lived above the law offices, was cleaning his apartment after an evening factory shift when a neighbor knocked at his door. Smoke was billowing from her sink. They immediately called 911.

        “It was a little difficult (to watch). It got out of control real quick,” said Mr. Johnson, 25.

        About 150 firefighters and 16 agencies from throughout Brown, Adams and Clermont counties were called in to help Georgetown's volunteer firefighters. Firefighter Donald Koewler was treated at Brown County General Hospital after he fell.

        Residents escaped unharmed but newspaper archives and decades of real estate records are believed to be lost.

        “They're just old buildings,” said Jay Cutrell, who owned some of the property. “The wood is very dry. When it catches, it goes.”

        The blaze, he said, was more devastating than the arson that destroyed the county courthouse in 1977 and the flames that ruined two historic buildings, in the block adja cent to the Monday morning fire, in June 1998.

        Mr. Cutrell said it will be some time before he decides whether to rebuild.

        Lawyer Julie McConn Pirman has practiced law for two decades in the offices destroyed Monday. Her late father had practiced there as well.

        “I just thought, "Oh, my God.' I just prayed that the fire wall would hold,” she said. “But it didn't.”

        Schools and businesses never opened Monday, some citing low water pressure from fighting the fire as the reason. The demand for water also caused two water mains to break.

        Schools were expected to reopen today.

        All morning, crowds hovered near the fallen buildings.

        Elaine Ludy, 60, took photographs for her 20-year-old daughter who is studying in England.

        “It's hard to look at,” she said. “It's devastating. The wonderful history that Georgetown has. ... My hope is that we can put it back together.”

        The News Democrat, owned by Brown Publishing, has a paid circulation of 4,700 for its Thursday edition and 16,000 for a free Sunday edition.

        “People have rallied around us, that's a big help,” publisher Steven Triplett said. “This Thursday, we'll be out.”

        While firefighters dumped water on the smoldering rubble, Wilma Gamel said the Citifinancial branch she manages was heavily damaged.

        “If Georgetown has a financial district, this was it,” Ms. Gamel said.

        The state fire marshal's office will spearhead an investigation.

        “We'll pull together,” said Ray Becraft, village administrator. “It's a small community. In a crisis, everybody comes out to see what they can do.”

Georgetown's aim: to rise again



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