Damage Estimate From Richmond, Virginia Blaze Likely To Increase

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Progress has been made along Broad Street since Friday's devastating fire, but the minds of those personally affected by the blaze remain weary from enduring disaster.

"Nothing else mattered on Friday except making sure my dogs were safe," said a tearful Janet Ware, owner of Rare Ware's Bead Shop on Broad Street. "But now reality has set in, and it's like, 'Now what?'"

Ware, like many property owners in the area, began the arduous task yesterday of assessing the damage created by the intense blaze that broke out during Friday's lunch hour.

Flames destroyed a five-story apartment building under construction in the 900 block of West Broad. Wind spread burning debris to properties blocks away, igniting several homes in the Carver neighborhood.

The sour smell of wet, charred wood mixed with the exhaust fumes of busy tow trucks and idling firetrucks in the area of Broad Street that was roped off yesterday morning as fire and city workers continued to mop up.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Chief Larry R. Tunstall said during a community meeting yesterday at the Siegel Center. About 75 residents and city officials attended the meeting.

The final total on property damage and the number of people displaced are still preliminary and are likely to climb, fire officials said. One death, of a woman who lost her oxygen supply when power to her home was cut off, has been linked to the fire.

City Manager Calvin D. Jamison said 14 buildings between Broad, Marshall, Clay and Goshen streets have been condemned. On Friday and Saturday, fire officials had reported a higher number of condemned buildings. Properties continue to be re-evaluated, officials said.

Jamison said 20 cars were damaged by the blaze. Lt. Rodney Berbert, a spokesman for the Richmond Fire Department, said the vehicles were being towed by Seibert's to the towing company's lot at 642 W. Plaza Drive.

As of yesterday, nine families were unable to return to their homes because of the extent of the damage, city officials said. Any person who suffered property loss is encouraged to contact his or her insurance company, Jamison said at the meeting.

City officials said an estimate of $20 million in damage reported Saturday will likely rise in the coming week.

Yesterday, city workers toiled to inspect gas and other utility lines running underneath Broad Street, in preparation for reopening the portion of the road ravaged by the fire, Berbert said.

Today, two lanes eastbound on Broad Street between Lombardy and Belvidere streets were expected to be open, as well as three westbound lanes, fire officials said. Tunstall said restoring the normal traffic pattern could take a week.

All Virginia Commonwealth University operations will be normal today. But there will be parking problems, warns Pam Lepley, a spokeswoman for the university. Pedestrian traffic will also be limited for safety reasons.

At yesterday's community meeting, VCU President Eugene P. Trani called the recent events "another test of the relationship between Carver and VCU." The university has been forging a relationship with the adjacent community over the past few years.

"We're grateful that it wasn't a lot worst," Trani said.

The university is establishing a "Carver Relief Fund" and accepting donations of food and clothing at the university's Community Programs Office, 1103 Marshall St.

The support is much needed for a community very much still in shock.

"All I could think was, 'Lord, don't let it hit my house,' and then I saw the flames coming," 73-year-old Hortense Smith, a Carver resident for 42 years, said yesterday.

On Friday, Smith and her two grown sons stood about 30 feet from their home on Marshall Street and watched flames consume years of family memories. Yesterday, the family came back to pick up the pieces.

A "Fonzie" doll. An oil lamp. Pictures of family.

They were all items that Smith could not leave behind, even with a bright orange condemned sticker slapped on her front door.

"We used to have holiday dinners right here," Smith said in disbelief, gesturing to a coveted antique dinner table covered in debris from a fallen ceiling and soot.

Like Smith, residents throughout the neighborhood seemed to mill about, still digesting the recent events. Throughout Carver, the streets were littered with charred structures and other reminders of Friday's fire.

"Some people out here lost everything they owned - people are just still in shock," said Patricia, a Carver resident who did not want to give her last name. She noted the eerie quietness of the neighborhood.

"The neighborhood is trying to get itself back together," she said. "But it's getting back together without a part of our community."