The Old Colorado City fire of ‘02

December 5, 2002, a personal account, see Waycott Opera House for media photographs.

7 AM
Early on Tuesday morning in sleepy Old Colorado City, a Channel 13 news crew met with Sue Seabolt in her Hand Carved Candles Shop to do a TV spot about candle safety. After they wrapped up, everyone went to breakfast together.

Fire Inspectors report that a candle was left burning.

9 AM
Bruce Reid, passer-by, was driving to work along Colorado Avenue at about nine and saw dark smoke coming from a vent on the sidewalk in front of the candle shop. He wondered what kind of toxic material they might be burning, did they think no one would notice the smoke before business hours? He pulled over to investigate (and maybe call the EPA.)

As he parked, the window of the adjacent Glass Blowers Shop blew out. Now it was apparent this was a fire and he began alerting people in nearby businesses to call 911.

WAYCOTT BASEMENT
Meanwhile managers at Meadow Muffins had already called 911. They saw smoke coming into their basement from an underground vent the bar shares with the shops next door.

That vent has always been thought to be part of the infamous tunnel system under Colorado Avenue. It dates back to the turn of the century when respectable residents didn’t want to be seen crossing the street to visit the taverns and brothels on the disreputable south side of the street.

2ND FLOOR
Two floors above, Rusty and Steve of PRODUCERS GROUP were being overwelmed by the smoke coming into their video production office. Their main entrance is on the east side of the Waycot Building, above the Glass Blowers Shop, with stairs that descend through the now burning building. They tested the door handle, it was hot. When they opened the door they were pushed back by a surge of heat. The stairway was on fire. They figured out they would have to go out through the back.

On their way out the two ascended to my door at the third floor. They knocked and shouted, hoping I would hear them. Eventually they gave up and wanted to check outside to see what was happening. On the street they ran into Bruce Reid, they told him, yes there was a third person still in the building. Bruce climbed the stairs to try again.

3RD FLOOR
I was asleep, nearly. I’d gone to bed at 6am though I meant to be nursing a flu. Things needed doing and anyway I intended to convalesce until noon.

At 9am I had an unplanned call from a friend. I answered him vaguely, determined to resume my sleep. As I lay into my pillow I heard a very faint sound: banging noises, coming from far away.

“What IS that?” I wondered. Banging, buzzing. A continuous barrage. Was someone BANGING on my door? I listened until it could not have been anything else. I threw on a robe and went to answer. What did they WANT? I made my way to the door, noticing several curious smoky odors.

I opened the door to see a stranger heading back down the stairs. He tripped back as he spun to address me. I noticed quite a bit of smoke in the stairwell.

He shouted to me “Man, you’ve got to get out, the building next door is on fire!”

Probably I said “What?”

He repeated, quite excited “There’s a fire next door, you’ve got to get out!”

“Alright, alright. Calm down” I told him. Who was this stranger in my stairwell, on my side of a supposedly locked street level door?

“No problem” I assured him, “I’ll come down. Don’t worry. I’m the only one up here. ” He ran down as I closed the door.

As I walked around my place looking for something to wear, the smoke became much more pronounced. It was seeping up through the floor. I looked through the east windows but didn’t see anything. I put on the nearest clothes and grabbed a jacket and my camera to go investigate. If there was any kind of a fire wouldn’t I have heard fire trucks already? I descended the stairs, the smoke was getting bad. Hmm.

ON THE STREET
When I got to the street I saw Rusty and Steve standing on the corner next to a fire truck. When I reached them I saw there were four trucks already, maybe more. A crowd had assembled. Across the street I saw the stranger who had helped me.

It looked like a small fire inside the Glass Blowers Shop, smoke, no flames, and the firemen didn’t apear too excited. I took a couple of pictures and then my battery died. I hadn’t brought a spare.

I hadn’t grabbed my phone, my wallet or anything. Suddenly flames emerged from the roof of the small shops. The flames rose high against the east wall of the Waycott Building. Now I could tell the firemen weren’t going to let me back up. As the morning went on it became clear that there were going to be a lot of pictures of this fire.

ANXIETY
The initial inactivity of a number of the firemen, which I dismissed as their knowing-what-they-are-doing, turned out to be closer related to a lack of water. The nearby fire hydrant was found dry. “Why aren’t they spraying water?” my father asked. What began with a candle became a three alarm fire.

Worse than the feeling that not enough was being done, was when the firemen started running around, that’s when you’d begin to worry that the fire was about to pull ahead.

THE FIRE
The worrisome aspect for the Waycott Building was that the second floor entrance was acting much like an oven hood for the fire. We’d find later that the upper floors would serve as a smoke stack for this blaze.

We could see smoke escaping from second story windows left open on the west side of the building. I congratulated myself that the third floor windows were all closed, perhaps reducing the effect of a draft. Later I would lament that as a result all the smoke had nowhere to go. It thickened into every corner and soot simply piled unto itself.

We watched a team of firemen ascend to the second floor to keep the fire out. They had to cross the floor in total darkness. There was a rumor they’d gotten lost. They kept the fire from coming into the building. The water from their hoses accumulated in the Meadow Muffins basement.

I’d like to write more, about the third floor window frame catching fire, how the firemen had to knock it out and then had to probe into the ceiling to assure the fire hadn’t lept there. For now I better jump to the aftermath.

STEWARDSHIP
First a note about the fish.

When you’ve been in a fire, after the fire is out, you get to ask a firefighter to go fetch anything from inside which you might need until you are granted access yourself. Phone, checkbook, a change of clothes, keys. I had to draw a map of the floor plan and try to remember where each item might have last been mislaid. An interesting challenge.

Someone remembered the fish. Two angel fish and a tough little silver guy who’s survived bigger challenges. The tank water would have absorbed a lot of smoke.

The personal-items-retriever came back with everything, including the fish. They looked like they were having trouble but the fireman said the male angel had faught him off. A good sign or a last exertion that might prove fatal. Gianmichele and my father ran the bucket up the street to the aquarium store. But the poor fish didn’t recover.

A friend of mine once described the responsibility of owning a rare book or antique. In the end we are only its steward. A rare possession is ours to keep safe until we pass it on to another. A book is yours to read, to cherish, or resell at a profit if that’s what you’re doing. It’s not yours to destroy.

Looking upon the fire I didn’t feel like I’d been very responsible.

AFTERMATH
Thank you for the emails and calls of support. Yes, the servers were down, due to what Gianmichele labeled our pyrotechnical difficulties, thus emails were bouncing and the websites were not accessible.

I’m fine. I’m sure I would have been just fine, but I’m thankful that I was rousted by Bruce Reid at my door instead of facing firemen in gas masks coming through smoke toward my bed. That might have been too exciting.

The guys on the second floor didn’t fare very well. Their offices were damaged by the heat and smoke. Meadow Muffins will be closed for several weeks to repair the water and smoke damge. The First National Bank building which houses the Michael Garman businesses are facing similar repairs. And of course the building between us which housed four little craft stores is gone.

Comparatively the third floor suffered little damage. There is soot everywhere, whatever was face up is ruined, but the books in the curtained area seem to be unscathed, it appears they were screened from the smoke. Everything’s fine, relatively, just smelly.

How smelly is hard to say, after a while you can’t tell any difference. We’re laundering everything three times, but everywhere I visit I smell like I came back from sitting on the wrong side of a campfire.

Reprinted from Waycott Opera House.

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Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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