22 Richmond, Virginia Buildings, $20 Million In Damages

Richmond has begun assessing the cost of its most devastating fire in decades, with one estimate exceeding $20 million to repair the damage to an area the city regards as a showcase for urban revitalization.

Fire officials said 22 buildings were destroyed or damaged Friday after an apartment building that was under construction for college students caught fire and high winds carried the flames across West Broad Street into the Carver neighborhood.

Fire officials said the city condemned at least 18 buildings on Broad, Marshall, Clay, and Goshen streets. The city will decide this week which condemned buildings must be torn down and which buildings can be repaired.

Electricity was restored yesterday to all of the buildings in the area except those that were damaged too badly to be occupied or were connected electrically to other unsafe structures. Utility workers will determine tomorrow whether underground natural-gas lines are in good enough condition to restore gas service in the area.

City officials weren't sure yesterday when they will reopen West Broad and other streets in the area that have been blocked.

Fire officials are still investigating the cause of the fire, but they do not suspect that it was set deliberately. Construction workers on the site said the fire began in a plastic chute that car- ried debris from the top of the five-floor wooden frame building to a Dumpster at the rear of the property.

"We believe it started at or near the chute area," Deputy Fire Marshall Don Horton said yesterday.

One woman died after losing electricity for an oxygen machine in her home in Carver. Marian Jackson, of the 800 block Catherine St., died at VCU Medical Center on Friday.

Neighbor Diane Bond said she saw Jackson in the back yard, and she didn't look well. "The last time I saw her, she was sick because she wasn't getting enough oxygen," she said.

Lacking the electricity to recharge her battery-powered oxygen unit, Jackson decided to have her daughter take her to her mother's house. A half-block away, she passed out. Paramedics, who had been nearby, worked on Jackson's heart without success, Bond said.

She described Jackson as 40-something and "a very sweet lady. She would give you her heart."

Two firefighters were treated and released at a Richmond hospital Friday night, and another was treated for exhaustion at the fire scene.

"We're just glad everybody went home safe," Horton said.

City officials also voiced relief that the property damage was not much worse. The Virginia Commonwealth University's Fine Arts Building, one of the major improvements to Broad Street in the past decade, sustained some fire damage to its roof and water damage inside but will reopen tomorrow.

"We could have - maybe should have - lost the Fine Arts Building," said City Councilman William J. Pantele, who represents the area.

"A lot of the firefighters I talked to were worried the whole [neighborhood] would go up," he said as he walked down a section of Broad Street flanked by condemned buildings and littered with cinders.

Pantele estimated the cost of repairing the damage at "upwards of $20 million." A big part of the bill is replacing the apartment building where the fire began.

City Manager Calvin D. Jamison said the building's developer already had invested more than $5 million in construction.

Pantele said he spoke to the developers yesterday. "Needless to say, they are traumatized," he said.

The building was nearing completion for 172 VCU students, who would have moved in next fall. The university was leasing the building from RAMZ LLC, a private developer.

Construction crews were preparing to install a sprinkler system in the building before the fire began, city and VCU sources said. Electrical workers said they were completing the alarm system when the fire began.

"It was the stage of the construction and the wind that contributed to the fire moving as rapidly as it did," Jamison said.

Code-enforcement officials will determine early next week which of the condemned buildings will have be torn down and which can be repaired.

City tax appraisers also plan to begin inspecting the area for damage. "We will go out and make some inspections and see how much damage was done versus how much the market value is," said Interim City Assessor Richie McKeithen. "It will probably take us a week or more depending on how much is messed up."

Insurance investigators also toured the area yesterday and took photographs of damaged properties. "It's probably going to take days for all that to be totaled," said Lt. Ronald K. Faulconer, a spokesman for the Fire Department.

Jamison declared a state of emergency for the area Friday. He said the declaration will help the city recover the costs of responding to the fire from the state and federal governments.

He said the fire could have resulted in a "huge disaster," had it not been for the cooperation between public utility crews and city workers. "When you have that kind of a fire that moves fast with 20-plus mile an hour winds and it if were to ignite any facilities with gas, you could have had an explosion that could have been dramatic," he said.

Richmond firefighters said they received the first alert at 12:32 p.m. Friday from Emerald Construction Co., one of the firms working on the site.

More than 200 fire, police, and emergency workers responded. Fire companies came from Chesterfield, Henrico, and Charles City counties to either help fight the fire or back up Richmond firefighters occupied with the blaze. The effort involved more than 50 pieces of firefighting equipment.

A half-dozen fire companies remained at the site overnight yesterday and soaked the burned building throughout the day to allow cranes eventually to begin removing the debris.

Owners of the damaged properties were not able to secure their buildings until yesterday afternoon. One owner, who would not give his name, used a small generator to run a power saw and cut plyboard for his fire-gutted buildings on Broad Street at its intersection with Goshen.

"I'm sorry it was such a catastrophe," he said, "but I thank the dear Lord nobody was hurt."

Staff writer Michael Paul Williams contributed to this report.