Several agencies are involved to determine how the multi-million dollar blaze began as surrounding businesses work to recover from collateral damage.

The downtown Tama Complex is in shambles following a massive fire reported at 10:55 p.m. Saturday, spotted from Martini’s Grille on North Fourth Street.

Emergency crews remained on the scene two days later, hosing down hot spots and working to clear the soot and debris from the broken-down buildings at the northwest corner of Jefferson and Third streets. The site today is fenced off to secure the area from falling debris as onlookers take photos and remain in awe of the damage.

Fifty-three firefighters from six different departments battled the flames overnight last Saturday, but by dawn last Sunday the large Tama building and its shorter neighbor had been gutted. What didn’t burn sustained severe water damage as water cannons from four ladder trucks and a pumper doused the flames, which seemingly refused to be held at bay. The back of the building’s northern portion collapsed, but so far the rest of the five-story, 19th-century structure remains standing.

By Monday afternoon, the State Fire Marshal and structural engineers were on-scene to determine when it will be safe to go inside.

Under investigation

Since the fire, several state and local law enforcement agencies, along with representatives from at least one insurance company, began the process of determining how the fire started and whether it was accidental, negligence or arson.

“We are making progress," Burlington Fire Chief Matt Trexel said. "We are discovering things, at least from the fire department’s perspective, that surprised us. I do think there is a strong likelihood we are going to be able to determine the cause of the fire."

Trexel wanted to emphasize the investigation is in its infant stages and it is too early to begin speculating on what caused the fire.

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The five-alarm blaze was discovered shortly before 11 p.m. by a person several blocks away, who saw flames shooting from top of three-story structure at Third and Jefferson streets. It took firefighters about 12 hours to bring it under control.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries and a woman, who was the only person inside the buildings at the time of the fire, escaped without injury when she was rescued by firefighters after she climbed out of third-story window onto an aerial ladder.

According to Trexel, two parallel investigations into the fire and now being conducted.

"By that I mean the state fire marshal’s office, the fire department and police department are conducting one investigation and the insurance investigators are conducting their own inquiry," Trexel said.

He said a two-hour meeting Thursday with agencies involved in the investigation was conducted at the Burlington Police Department. At that meeting, investigators watched videos of the fire taken from police body cameras and dashboard videos, along with videos they have received from the public and from social media.

“Although they are parallel investigations, we share information with each other like we did today (Thursday),” Trexel said.

He said investigators have conducted interviews with several people and will continue to interview people as the inquiry progresses. He said the same group of investigators will meet at 9 a.m. Monday for a briefing on the status of the two investigations.

He said additional information on the progress of the investigation is expected to be released following that meeting.

Those involved in the investigation are continuing to interview dozens of people, including about 13 subcontractors and their employees, along with the woman who was inside the building at the time of the fire. Authorities said the woman was employed by one of the subcontractors and had authorization to be inside the building.

One of the areas of interest investigators are focusing on is the fact the buildings had sprinkler systems installed but the systems had been shutoff at the master unit in the basement that prevented firefighters from activating the sprinkler system.

According to Burce Workman, a Burlington battalion chief, firefighters connected to the sprinkler system and attempted to pump water into it the night of the fire, but were unsuccessful. They later learned the valves to the master control unit in the basement were closed, he said.

Workman, who was commander at the scene of the fire, said 53 firefighters from six area departments assisted in fighting the blaze. In addition to Burlington, Workman said other fire departments dispatched to the scene included West Burlington, Danville, Fort Madison, Mediapolis and Mount Pleasant.

The two buildings in the complex were destroyed.

The buildings had recently been undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration effort after sitting idle for years following a previous fire in the building in 2010.

Investigators also said this week they have not determined the amount of damages caused by the blaze. However, authorities did say the owners of the building told them it was insured for $12 million.

At the time of the blaze, work was nearing completion on a $12.5 million rehabilitation of the buildings, which were to have residential units on the upper stories with commercial space at street-level. Would-be commercial tenants were expected to start moving in during the next couple of weeks.

Streets adjacent to the complex, including the 300 block of Third and Jefferson streets, remain closed as workers continue to clean up debris, while investigators search through the rubble for the cause of the blaze.

Businesses resilient after fire

Downtown business owners are feeling the burn after a fire destroyed the Tama Complex last week, but it seems the blaze has only fueled the fire of their determination in its aftermath.

Since sidewalk access was granted Tuesday, Doreen Roy has been flitting back and fourth between her two businesses, the Red Screen Door at 301 Jefferson St., and Gypsi, 312 Jefferson St.

It wasn't until Thursday afternoon that power, which had been knocked out by damage to electrical wires caused by the collapse of the north portion of both the Tama Building and the Chittenden and Eastman Commercial Building, was restored to Gypsi, Diggers Rest Coffeehouse and Roaster, owned by Pookie Keomanivong, and several businesses along the 300 block of North Fourth Street.

Inventory has been cleared from Gypsi and is being stored next-door inside Diggers Rest until the water-logged carpeting can be torn out and replaced with flooring, which she expects will be delivered over the weekend, allowing Gypsi and Diggers Rest to open early this week, Gypsi by either Monday or Tuesday and Diggers Rest Monday.

La Tavola restaurant, which was without power much of the week, and Let's Travel, which also was without power and sustained water damage, will reopen Monday as well. Great Western Bank's drive through remains closed as rubble needs to be cleared.

The days-long firefight that began last Saturday left a strong, musky smell embedded into the carpet inside Gypsi that even professional cleaners had a difficult time removing. Roy said it was more cost effective to remove the carpeting rather than have it be cleaned.

This past week has been difficult for Roy. Not only has she lost out on sales from Gypsi being closed, but lack of street access is hurting business at the Red Screen Door as well. She said with street access being cordoned off along the 300 block of Jefferson Street, she’s been making only two or three sales a day, a far cry from usual businesses.

The Red Screen Door isn’t the only business taking a hit due to lack of parking and street traffic.

“It’s scary, it really is,” said Burlington By the Book owner Chris Murphy, who was celebrating the store’s eighth anniversary Friday with cake he set out for customers.

The store typically gets a boost with the Farmer’s Market, but that didn’t happen last week as the market had to be rerouted.

Next door, the Art Center of Burlington was preparing for a gallery opening, during which works by local artists and art teachers Craig Fleece, Tony Onesto and Chris Molder will be showcased.

Across the street inside Gypsi, Roy worked alongside building owners David and Dawn Hazell, who purchased the building next to the Tama Complex June 1.

“We need to get Jefferson Street ready to roll and opened up,” David Hazell said as he began working to remove the water-damaged cabinets and sink from the back of the store.

The Hazells also own The Washington and the building that houses The Bistro at North Fourth and Washington streets. David Hazell's downtown involvement dates back to 1997, when he purchased The Blue Shop at 320 N. Fourth St. He said the loss of the Tama Complex and the uncertainties surrounding it have created “an awkward momentum” for the downtown community as he and others were anticipating more people living in the area.

Hazel, however, remains hopeful for the future of the Tama Complex site.

“Hopefully it spurs something beyond our imagination,” he said after commenting on the important role of leadership within the community as well as the city council in making that happen.

He also is optimistic for the future of his own building. According to a site inventory form, the upper two stories of the three-story Hedge-Ransom-Palmer Block building have been vacant since 1965. Built in 1867, the building is one of the oldest in the Downtown Commercial Historic District. Though long-vacant, the second and third floors have potential, with curved walls and a double staircase leading up to the third floor. Hazel said they could be used for something like business rentals or apartments, but he is open-minded about its use.

“It could potentially be something pretty grand,” Roy said, motioning upward to the empty floors overhead.

City councilwoman Linda Murray was hard at work inside Gypsi as well, scrubbing at watermarks left along the wall. She is unsure what the future will bring, but she’s hopeful some of the Tama Complex can be saved.

“There’s so much history in there,” she said.

As for the present and the rest of the downtown area, the Hallmark Store has reopened at 604 Jefferson St., Original Cyns' neighboring storefront will be home to a store called Little Brown Duck and two buildings on Valley Street are being renovated into high-end, market-rate lofts. Other recent additions to downtown include B-Town Comics and Wake N' Bake.

Starting from square one

Redeveloping the Tama Complex was the anchor driving new investment downtown.

The project had a $12.5 million budget, $7.5 million of which was grant dollars and a Community Development Block Grant loan.

Because of extensive fire damage racked up in the building over the last century, a sprinkler system was installed throughout the whole complex. Builders used fire-rated sheet rock throughout the building, and a concrete fire barrier separated the downstairs commercial spaces from the upstairs apartments.

Although there were sprinklers in the building, Eric Tysland, Burlington’s development and parks director, said Monday they likely weren’t activated because no one was living or working in the building full-time. Trexel also confirmed the existence of a sprinkler system and said investigators would be in contact with the system’s manufacturer to see if the system was activated when the fire began.

When asked Monday during a city council meeting about whether the remainder of the building was in danger of collapse, Trexel said the insurance company assessing the building thought “it’s going to come down but not without help.”

Olive Wine owner Mark Renteria was a month away from moving the business to Tama, along with a grocery store and catering business. Forty-eight apartments also were preparing for new tenants. Cody and Greg Flietner, co-owners of Big River Popcorn, were getting ready to move their family business to the Tama Complex.

“We were very excited because the light was at the end of the tunnel,” Greg Flietner said last Sunday morning, as he watched water being poured onto the flames and surging out the street-level door of what would have been his new place of business.

Renteria said last Sunday he was “totally depressed” by the loss of the building.

“We’ve been working on this project for 3 1/2 years, with the grocery store, the catering business and Olive Wine all going into the building,” Renteria said. “We are going to work with the developer (Doug Wells of Des Moines) to set a plan to go forward and figure it out. We can’t just lose this. The building is going to have to be torn down, but we need to to reinvest in Burlington and get something new coming here.”

Wells described the scene downtown as “shocking.”

“After working on the project so much and the length of time it has taken, the hundreds of dedicated construction workers who spent thousands of hours here, it’s just shocking to me,” Wells said. “I’m devastated.”

The Hawk Eye toured the apartments in May when cabinets and flooring were starting to appear, and in April 2017, the public was led through Tama while it was still in the early stages of reconstruction.

Tysland said the city didn’t yet have an idea of what it would cost to demolish the building, but estimated it would run at least four times more than the $100,000 it took to tear down the former Park View Care Center by Dankwardt Park. Total costs there reached $417,000, a majority of which was for asbestos abatement.

“We’re still just waiting on the owner (Wells) and their team to see where they’re at on stuff,” Tysland said Monday. “I talked to him this morning and they’re getting set for meetings with insurance and getting engineers in to get a survey of the structure.”

City staff, emergency responders, insurance investigators, Downtown Partners and Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission met with Wells last week to begin to get their arms around the shocking turn of events.

Wells, a Des Moines-based architect, arrived in town Wednesday to survey the damage. He thus far has declined to comment publicly on his plans for the site.

Despite the devastating setback, which likely will result in the demolition of the 122-year-old Tama Building and its neighbor in the complex, the Chittenden and Eastman Commercial Building, Ferneau said Wells has inquired about how to move forward with the city of Burlington on future projects.

He was hopeful Burlington would not be on the hook for demolition costs, but emphasized the city needed to talk with Wells and other stakeholders before they would have clear answers.

“I don’t know what the final ultimate cost will be on that,” Ferneau said. “We just don’t know what the steps are at this point. It’ll have to get addressed one way or another and we are the step of last resort depending on how things work out.”

Hawk Eye reporters Andy Hoffman, Elizabeth Meyer and Michaele Niehaus worked on the story.