Times averts disaster
July 19, 2002
A fire erupted inside a wall at The Aspen Times on Thursday afternoon, forcing employees to evacuate the building for more than an hour.
“Everyone save their stories now,” yelled Aspen Times reporter Janet Urquhart as curls of smoke appeared in the newspaper’s editorial department around 2:30 p.m.
Employees at The Times called 911 after sparks from a soldering torch apparently got inside a wall and started a blaze. At one point, 2-foot flames were seen coming out of the wall, and the building, which was built in the late 1800s, soon filled with smoke. A worker was fixing a leaking pipe when the fire started.
Aspen Fire Department officials extinguished the fire 15 minutes after they arrived on the scene.
“It’s an interior wall that stretches from the first floor up to the attic space,” said Fire Chief Darryl Grob, after firefighters cleared the scene. “The cause is under investigation, and dispatch recommended that everyone evacuate the building. We’re evaluating the safety of the structure and working with the publisher to get the building reoccupied.”
By 4 p.m., employees were allowed to re-enter the building, although some electrical circuits in the second-floor editorial department were shut off. Firefighters were forced to knock a large hole out of a wall in the newsroom when they discovered a remaining “hot spot.” Several employees were relocated throughout the building in order to get today’s edition out.
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“Investigators are telling us they’re not sure this happened because of what we did,” said Lou Sebald, owner of Bishop Plumbing. “There’s no charring around the solder – it’s all up in the right side. It’s the weirdest thing, but my guy was done with the project and then he saw the smoke and called the fire department.”
A new office is being built on the first floor, and the historic building’s water had been temporarily shut off while the pipes were being prepared to be covered with Sheetrock. Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad said he smelled smoke in the photography department, and went out to see what what was going on.
“They said it was just smoke from the soldering, but this was a more woody, strong smell, whereas soldering is a more metallic smell,” he said. “I walked over and saw smoke pouring out of the top of the wall, and when I climbed up I saw 2-foot flames.”
Conrad yelled for a fire extinguisher, and emptied fire retardant onto the blaze in the wall before leaving the building.
“I did what I could, and I did what I had to,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose my place of employment.”
The editorial department quickly filled with smoke after the blaze was discovered, as it abuts the wall where the fire was located.
“It went from the mild smell of smoke to dense, thick smoke with little visibility inside of four minutes,” said sports editor Tim Mutrie.
He first knew something was amiss when he noticed smoke seeping out of a light fixture above his desk. “In another minute it was clear things were out of control,” he said.
Once smoke alarms started going off, employees grabbed their dogs and what else they could and fled the building. Everyone waited at the end of the alley behind Carl’s until firefighters arrived. The age of the building and its fixtures, as well as the many piles of papers that are found throughout the building, had many concerned that the building would burn quickly if the blaze wasn’t snuffed.
“We were concerned when getting to the scene, because with a building over 100 years old, this could have developed into a disaster,” said Aspen firefighter Jesse Graber.
Grob said that while the fire department has authority over things like exit signs and construction materials in buildings, they do not mandate a building’s internal furnishings, unless they are made of hazardous materials.
“We have talked about it and stressed that with the fuel load in this building, such that it is, it is a very real possibility that you’d get a very big fire in a short period of time,” Grob said. “Perhaps this message was brought home a little stronger today.”
Managing Editor Mike Hagan said he’s feared the possibility of such an occurrence in the building since he took a job at the newspaper over five years ago.
“I knew this day would come,” he said. “But we made it.”