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The burning of downtown Gary. Smoldering

The burning of downtown Gary. Smoldering

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."

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