Dover’s landmarks present fire-fighting challenges

DOVER — There are responses to fire calls and then there are responses.

Rushing toward an early afternoon fire at none other than historic Legislative Hall earlier this month, Mark Hall realized, “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”

Dover Fire Department Chief Mark Hall  says, “As fire chief I think about the Governor’s Mansion, Leg Hall, Wesley and Delaware State dorms, and older buildings that you couldn’t imagine not existing anymore.”  (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

Dover Fire Department Chief Mark Hall says, “As fire chief I think about the Governor’s Mansion, Leg Hall, Wesley and Delaware State dorms, and older buildings that you couldn’t imagine not existing anymore.” (Delaware State News file/Dave Chambers)

The Dover Fire Department chief arrived first on the scene at 411 Legislative Ave. just after 2:17 p.m. on Oct. 7. He witnessed black smoke coming from two wooden doors in the front of the three-story building, and gray smoke pouring out two side windows.

At some point later in the afternoon, the fire chief grasped crews were “trying to save a landmark building that’s on practically every postcard in Delaware.”

Also, he said, “As fire chief I think about the Governor’s Mansion, Leg Hall, Wesley and Delaware State dorms, and older buildings that you couldn’t imagine not existing anymore.”

“Leg Hall” has been the working home for the state legislature since 1933.

Chief Hall worried the gray smoke meant the blaze was about to combust further, even as he received conflicting reports of the fire’s origination and path.

Chaos ensued for “three to four minutes” before command determined that hose lines from an arriving ladder truck should be taken through the north side entrance of Legislative Hall toward the basement.

“I thought we had a big fire somewhere in the building,” he said.

Legislative Hall’s age presented challenging surroundings due to all the hidden nooks and crannies, Chief Hall said, where visibility was limited. Building blueprints also were requested from Capitol Police since “not a lot of our people are familiar with being inside (of Legislative Hall).”

Capitol Police Chief John Horsman

Capitol Police Chief John Horsman

Building occupants quickly were evacuated by Capitol Police before Chief Hall arrived, and he later saluted officers for their “exemplary” actions. Capitol Police Chief John Horsman said that while officers often deal with false alarms, rarely do they face true fires.

“We do a lot of drills,” said Chief Horsman, noting that all officers receive basic training while attending the police academy, and attend the Delaware Fire School for a week.

While the chief was in Sussex County at the time of the blaze he knew that Capitol Police supervisors were at the scene.

“Our officers knew what to do and they were doing it,” he said.

State employees and others within the building “knew there was a fire alarm, knew to evacuate and move away from the scene,” Chief Horsman said.

Facilities management staff played a key role in the early stages of detection and evacuation, Chief Horsman said.

“I can’t reiterate enough how the first two trucks arriving stopped the fire from spreading,” Chief Hall said. “There was a legitimate, significant danger for it to become much worse for an extended amount of time.”

The fire was extinguished within two hours, according to reports. Leg Hall currently is closed to the public and cleanup and repair efforts continue.

The blaze quelled

After the blaze was quelled, city of Dover investigation found an exhaust pipe accidentally ignited flammable material in the attic. There was no immediate damage cost estimation made, but Hall described it as “extensive.” Officials pointed to a significant amount of water damage used while extinguishing the blaze.

Members of the Little Creek Fire Company stand ready at a window of Legislative Hall Oct. 7. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Members of the Little Creek Fire Company stand ready at a window of Legislative Hall Oct. 7. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

“Fire, smoke and water damage was prevalent throughout the north side of the building, with the entire building being affected by the smoke,” a Dover Fire Department report read.

With every Dover truck from both stations involved and a second alarm transmitted, a “Fill the Box” mutual aid call had Little Creek, Magnolia and Camden fire companies covering any other issues that might arise in the city.

On the west side of the Kent County Courthouse about a quarter mile away, Tim Slavin kept hearing sirens and said all the trucks passing by “were going to Leg Hall.” The director of the state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs received word that Leg Hall was on fire, and made the short walk there within approximately 15 to 20 minutes of the initial report.

“It was a big fire that had a lot of response and could have had a chaotic nature to it,” Mr. Slavin said.

“I was impressed with the orderly, calm, professional manner in which firefighters were responding.

“They clearly had a determined mindset and just went about doing what needed to be done.”

Mr. Slavin hearkened back to the Old Statehouse fire on The Green in the spring of 2005, and flashed back to more than 10 years ago while witnessing Leg Hall’s distress.

Timothy A. Slavin

Timothy A. Slavin

“I walked up on (the Old Statehouse) and flames were coming out of the roof and thought ‘Oh my, are we going to lose it all?’ The same sinking feeling was there with this (Leg Hall fire).”

The coordinated response was an immense undertaking and flowed smoothly according to observers and participants. Besides the Dover Fire Department, the Little Creek, Camden, Magnolia and Bowers volunteer fire companies arrived.

Also taking part in limiting the damage was Dover and Capitol police, city and state fire marshal’s office, city of Dover Electric Department and Emergency Management Team, and Chesapeake Utilities.

The damage assessment

After assessing damage to artwork and furnishings at Leg Hall, a determination was made to temporarily remove all the items from the building. Mr. Slavin said of the 160 pieces involved, 11 were damaged to the point of needing special attention by a professional conservator.

Smoke can be seen wafting out of a window at Legislative Hall on Wednesday afternoon. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

Smoke can be seen wafting out of a window at Legislative Hall on Oct. 7. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

A partnership between HCA and Winterthur/University of Delaware faculty staff will allow two paintings to be treated at no cost to the state:

• A 1914 portrait of Revolutionary War Major John Patten — the most seriously damaged piece — by artist Lassaut Richter Rogers and a 1966 portrait of Gov. Charles L. Terry by artist Jamie Wyeth.

“Winterthur/UD staff has expertise in that area and wanted to provide that service to the state of Delaware,” according to HCA spokesman C.R. McLeod.

“They also has previous experience with Wyeth paintings, and offered assistance with the portrait of Gov. Terry by Jamie Wyeth.”

Offering a timeline that’s subject to change, Mr. Slavin said some items will be returned by the time a special Senate meeting regarding judicial appointments convenes Wednesday. The hope is that almost everything will be in place when the legislative session begins in January.

There’s ample work and coordination ahead.

“It’s effectively like moving an entire art museum somewhere else and then returning it to its original location,” Mr. Slavin said.

While no items were touched by flames, officials said exposure to heat, smoke and water took its toll.

No estimated cost for repair was available this week, but Mr. McLeod said, “HCA will be able to accomplish a majority of the work with state resources.”

Legislative Hall access

As repairs and renovations continue, the public is not allowed in Legislative Hall until further notice, Next week’s Senate judicial appointments review will be a public session, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Until then, “The only individuals who are permitted to be in the building at this time are employees who work in the building and contractors performing work in the building,” OMB spokeswoman Jessica Eisenbrey said.

Approximately 20 staff work in Legislative Hall when legislators are not in session, officials said.

A Little Creek Volunteer Fire Company firefighter steps down a ladder in the front of Legislative Hall in Dover on Oct. 7. A fire in the north wing of the building resulted in smoke and water damage on three floors. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

A Little Creek Volunteer Fire Company firefighter steps down a ladder in the front of Legislative Hall in Dover on Oct. 7. A fire in the north wing of the building resulted in smoke and water damage on three floors. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

During the special session, the most damaged area of Legislative Hall will be roped off.
OMB described the number of employees displaced by the fire as “minimal”; when the legislature is out of session, many work from other locations, including the Carvel Office State Building in Wilmington.

While House Democrats’ Chief of Staff Sean Finnigan’s typically works in Wilmington until session re-convenes, his Dover office was badly damaged in the fire. Until it is restored, Mr. Finnigan will work out of his Wilmington office.

OMB indicated that repairs and cleanup completion are targeted for completion before the legislative session begins on Jan. 12, 2016.

Through an emergency procurement process, contractors were called to handle the building’s restoration.

The locally owned and operated Dover/Middletown SERVPRO franchise was hired for the initial cleanup after the blaze, addressing issues with furniture, carpets, upholstery, attic space, etc.

“They also removed water damage and moisture from carpets, walls and framing,” Ms. Eisenbrey said.

“SERVPRO is currently cleaning all ductwork throughout the building to remove any remaining smoke odor.”

Whiting-Turner, which has an office in Newark, is set to replace the building’s duct work damaged during the fire. The company also is finishing the renovation of the House Democrats’ Chief of Staff office.

According to Ms. Eisenbrey, “The Insurance Coverage Office is still working with the contractors to determine an estimate for damage repairs.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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