GARY - Work crews and fire inspectors sifted through the smoldering rubble
of three landmark buildings Monday after a fire city officials called
suspicious roared through the upper Broadway commercial district.
Reduced to a heap of twisted metal, bricks and charred wood were the
abandoned Goldblatt's Department Store in the 700 block of Broadway, the
historic Memorial Auditorium at the corner of Massachusetts Street and Seventh
Avenue, and the Methodist Church at Washington Street and Seventh Avenue.
At least four other downtown buildings were destroyed and others damaged in
the blaze that swept through the area late Sunday and early Monday.
Mayor Scott King said the buildings will most likely be demolished.
The fire's cause is being investigated. Fire Chief Richard Gilliam declined
to use the word "arson" at a City Hall press conference Monday to explain the
events that led to the fire.
Gilliam did say that the fire, which began about 10:30 p.m. Sunday in two
abandoned buildings immediately north of the Broadway Shopping Mall, 737
Broadway, was "suspicious."
Just as firefighters arrived on the scene, they spotted the abandoned
four-story Goldblatt's Department Store building ablaze. Assistant Fire Chief
Gregory Melyon said preliminary indications point to that fire being
intentionally set on the second floor.
Helped by a stiff south wind, both fires quickly spread, engulfing the
Memorial Auditorium to the east, the historic Radigan building to the north and
across Broadway to the roof of Gary Public Housing Authority's Genesis Towers
at 578 Broadway.
Hallways in the top floor of the 10-story building filled with smoke shortly
after midnight as the roof caught fire. City fire, police and rescue units
organized a swift and orderly evacuation of 124 elderly residents, some of whom
were infirm. Most were taken to the Genesis Convention Center two blocks north
on Broadway for shelter.
Four of the residents were treated at Methodist Hospital in Gary for smoke
inhalation before being released to join other residents at the Genesis Center.
They were allowed to return to their apartments about 5:30 a.m.
"I was never so afraid in my life," said Georgia Davis, 69, a resident of
the apartment complex since 1991. "But the police are firemen were real kind
and helpful. Thank God it wasn't as bad as it could have been."
King praised both the senior citizens and the rescue personnel for working
together to avoid any injuries. He also singled out Gilliam for mastering the
logistical challenge of fighting several major fires spread over five city
blocks with more than 200 firefighters and scores of emergency vehicles.
Every city fire truck and firefighter was on the scene, assisted by fire
departments from throughout Northwest Indiana.
Hobart Fire Chief Ray Ludwig supervised eight men directing streams of water
from two trucks through the collapsed roof and vacant windows of the
68-year-old Methodist Church, 575 Washington St. It was the largest fire most
of the men said they had ever seen.
"We've been hurt a lot by this wind that's been kicking those embers all
over the place," said Ludwig, who arrived at the abandoned church at 12:30 a.m.
Monday. "But we're pretty close to having this one knocked down. Then we'll see
what Gary (Fire Department) wants us to do next."
Security for the firefighters and the few remaining operating businesses in
the area was a prime concern to police, who patrolled Broadway with clubs the
size of ax handles. Police dispersed one group of some 90 young men shortly
after midnight to stop a threat of looting.
A Molotov cocktail was tossed onto the roof of Bank One, 525 Massachusetts
St., around 1:30 a.m. Monday, causing minor damage. Minutes later, a young man
threw a rock through one of the bank's windows before being chased from the
bank by police, King said.
King said it was too soon Monday to calculate the monetary damage from the
fire and that building inspectors would decide as soon as possible which, if
any, of the burned buildings might still be structurally sound. The ones that
aren't will be slated for immediate demolition.
Gilliam said it could take arson investigators days and maybe even several
weeks to determine what caused each of the fires. Gilliam said he thought
transients could be responsible for at least one of the blazes.
Residents who knew nothing of the fire until they arrived downtown Monday
morning seemed to have mixed feelings.
In front of Bio Blood Components, across from the charred Goldblatt's
building, young men waiting for the doors to the business to open at 7 a.m. so
they could sell their plasma for $20 said the fire might expedite the leveling
of Gary's abandoned downtown.
"There hasn't been anything here anyway for years," said 22-year-old Leon
Jenkins. "It might be that something good can come from this. What is that they
say about the Phoenix rising from the ash?"
Hairdresser Mary Hodgkin said she saw the fire as one more indication of
hard times in her home town.
"This place used to be something," she said. "Shopping on Broadway at
Christmas time, you couldn't have felt that way anywhere else in the world. But
that was a long time ago."