Photo credit: The News Journal/GINGER WALL
More than 200 firefighters battled a fast-moving blaze in Milford's downtown district Friday afternoon that ripped through a block of historic buildings, spewing smoke across the central and eastern side of the city.
The fire, which began shorty after 3 p.m. and took four hours to contain, consumed seven businesses, a storefront church and three apartments along South Walnut Street. Officials estimated damage at about $1 million.
At least one woman was injured and six firefighters were treated for minor heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
Firefighters said crumbling walls and collapsing roofs made it difficult to reach interior sections of the buildings to douse the flames. Many of the buildings contained flammable materials such as paper, books and cardboard boxes that had been stored for decades.
"It's just so old, and the fire load is so big," said Charlie Vanaman, chief of Carlisle Fire Company of Milford. "This is probably one of the oldest sections of town."
Assistant State Fire Marshal Richard Ward said the fire is believed to have started in a second-floor apartment next to Wiley Hardware & Appliances. The cause has not been determined, but fire officials said it appeared to be accidental.
Ward said because the fire began in the middle of a row of buildings, there was nothing to prevent it from spreading quickly.
"Most of your older towns, when they were built, there were no fire codes,'' Ward said. "No fire walls, no sprinkler systems. We're fortunate we haven't had more incidents."
Fire officials said Lloyd Golt, 50, who works at the hardware store, rescued a woman from the apartment where the fire started. Information about the unidentified woman was unavailable.
"The flames came across so quick, it was unbelievable," Golt said. "It was like the wall wasn't even there."
His daughter, Sabrina Palmer, 27, of Hartley, said her mother called and said "the whole place is on fire." She raced to Milford and found her father standing on the street watching the buildings burn. "I'm just happy that he's here and everybody is all right," she said, hugging him.
Milford is the hometown of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who joined dozens of spectators along the street to watch the blaze. She arrived after her office was notified that a state service center was in danger of burning. The service center was spared.
The governor wore a Carlisle Fire Company jacket and helmet as she surveyed the scene. Water from the fire hoses sprayed her and other spectators as smoke filled the street.
"A lot of these shops have been here a long time. When I was a kid, that was the A&P store," she said, pointing to a store at the corner of South West Front and Walnut streets.
That store is now Second Hand Prose, a used bookstore owned by Kenneth Novak, 73, and wife Frances, 78. The couple lives a block away from the store in the bed-and-breakfast that they operate in the old Causey Mansion.
"We're not going to have anything left," Kenneth Novak said as he watched the store burn. His wife had just moved her lifelong collection of about 1,200 cookbooks into the store so she and some friends could work on combining the recipes into one book.
"Now they're totally gone," she said.
Pastor Charles Shorts, 46, of the First Love Church, showed up with his sons and tried to save the organ in the gutted church. But it was too late.
He did save a bound King James bible, a metallic blue Ludwig drum set, soot-covered cymbals and a chestnut-colored lectern.
Short's mother Patricia Hercules, an apostle of the church, toured the scene with Minner.
"God ain't never taken from me without giving me something back," Hercules said. She said she planned to move Sunday services to either her Dover or Seaford churches.
Wright Parker watched as the roof of the Delaware Music School caved in. He owns the building that housed the school and the First Love Church.
"Two more years and the thing was paid for," Parker said. "It belongs to the insurance company now."
As firefighters battled flames in the buildings, another small fire broke out a block away about 4:50 p.m. when a truck backed into a utility pole and hit an electrical panel. Spectators screamed to draw firefighters' attention.
"The whole town's going to go up," said witness Kelley Morris, 35, of Milford. "We've got fire everywhere."
City code enforcement officer David Murphy said late Friday that he had not been able to get inside the buildings to inspect them. Some of the buildings were nearly 100 years old, he said.
"We'll probably have to tear down and rebuild," he said.
Walnut Street will remain closed to traffic until this morning, officials said. Police planned to monitor the scene overnight to assure there was no looting. A small contingent of firefighters was expected to remain overnight to extinguish any hot spots.
The town's planned Strawberry Festival, scheduled to be held on South Walnut Street today, has been postponed, city officials said.