History goes up in smoke

There’s still no determination of what started the massive fire that destroyed most of the Armory Building Saturday morning in Aberdeen, but city officials have begun investigating and entered the building on Monday afternoon to get a first look at the interior.

The concrete building that housed the Aberdeen Museum of History, the Coastal Community Action Program and the Senior Center appears as a vacant hulk, roofless with blackened windows and full of charred rubble. One of the biggest questions now is what will be recovered from that rubble.

Hundreds of people gathered under a brilliant blue sky and billowy white clouds Saturday morning to watch the fire, which was reported at about 9:30.

Daily World City Editor Dave Haerle was one of the first on the scene. He was driving over the Chehalis River Bridge when he saw the column of black smoke then a fireball that went up four stories into the sky.

When the initial units arrived shortly after that, large billowing flames and dark smoke were coming from the roof of the southwest corner of the building. A fire department press release said that “due to the amount of fire, size of building, and the amount of combustible material it contained,” it was impossible to prevent the fire from spreading throughout the building.

Fourteen different fire departments assisted, including some from Thurston County.

As of Sunday, there were still some smoldering hotspots in the building, and Battalion Chief Damon Lillybridge said Monday that he still wasn’t sure they were all out.

For Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, he said his “number one priority” is assessing what can be salvaged from the building, as well as the artifacts. “We’re trying to put together a group to recover the archives and documents in the basement,”he said. “It doesn’t appear they were damaged by fire, but they were flooded. We’ll try to go in and recover what can be recovered.”

Dave Morris, the museum’s executive director, acted as a guide for the investigators on Monday.

“I couldn’t walk in too far, just enough to point stuff out,” he said. “There was lots of destruction, but some things survived. There is hope.”

The building, at 117 E. Third Street, was constructed in 1922 for use as an armory and was used that way until the National Guard moved to its location on Clemons Road in 1978. It was then purchased by the Swanson family, which owned grocery stores in Aberdeen, and then donated to the city of Aberdeen, which owns it now. The non-profit museum was established in the early 1980s.

According to Lillybridge, the fire alarms in the building were part of a monitored system that automatically notifies 911 when it goes off.

Lillybridge said while the fire department will be looking to figure out the origin and cause of the fire, firefighters will also take considerations to preserve exposed items and artifacts.

“If it means we just have to put salvage covers on stuff so the rain doesn’t hurt anything until we can get it out of there, that’s what we’ll do,” said Lillybridge.

The city owns the building and the museum collection. On Monday afternoon, Larson and insurance representatives for the building met to discuss claims and future plans. He has also reached out to organizations to discuss how to salvage whatever’s left inside.

After their Monday afternoon meeting, Grays Harbor County Commissioners discussed ways to provide some relief to the Aberdeen Museum, senior center and Coastal Community Action Program.

Commissioner Randy Ross said he and the other commissioners were working with the state to figure out some way financial assistance could be provided.

“We can’t (the county) gift public funds,” said Ross. He said Monday afternoon that talks continue with the state but “nothing has been formalized” as of that time. “We are willing to help in any way we can,” he added.

Employees of CCAP were already beginning to move into the Seafirst Building in downtown Aberdeen, a space that housed a local Bank of America branch until a year or so ago. On Monday morning, members of CCAP were already in the building, and said they would be primarily using the first floor’s previous bank space, and some on the upper floors to reopen their services by Wednesday.

The Grays Harbor Genealogical Society library, which kept an extensive collection of funeral records and obituaries dating back as far as the late 1800s, kept some of their records in physical form only. While some were kept on a thumb drive, the society’s research chairman Bonnie Johannes said much of what they had was permanently lost.

“We must’ve had 25,000 hard copies (of obituaries), at least, so it’s a tremendous loss,” said Johannes, who was having a monthly meeting with the Genealogical Society in Hoquiam on Saturday morning when they heard about it.

From drone photos of the building after the fire was extinguished, Johannes guessed their entire space was likely lost, except for maybe some files tightly kept in a metal cabinet.

City Council member Karen Rowe said several places have volunteered to store salvaged and newly donated items for the museum, but no decisions have been made yet.

She and her Founders Day co-chair, Janet Bess, also noted that this year’s event proceeds will be donated for the museum’s immediate needs. “It’s for things they’re going to need before the insurance checks come through,” said Bess. “We’re celebrating the history of Aberdeen.”

On Tuesday at 11 a.m., a meeting to discuss future plans for the museum will be held at the Alder Grove Art Gallery in Aberdeen and members of the public are allowed to attend.

Doug Barker, Kat Bryant and Dan Hammock contributed to this report.