It’s been four and a half months since a fire broke out in Harpers Ferry that devastated its historic commercial district and caused millions of dollars in damages. Residents and nearby fire departments swarmed the town’s streets in the early hours of the morning to do what they could to contain the fire. Nearly eight hours later, the fire was put out but left behind the wood and stone frames of four buildings, some which were built before the Civil War.
Since that day, the town of Harpers Ferry has moved quickly toward recovery and is getting close to rebuilding. West Virginia Public Broadcasting has been following this story since the fire; here’s a look at how things are going now as 2015 comes to a close.
It was just around 3:15 in the morning on July 23 when property owner, Barbara Pusateri woke to her phone ringing.
She lives in Charles Town, about ten miles away from Harpers Ferry, where one of her buildings had been caught in an early morning fire.
“I’m thinking this is just a minor thing,” Pusateri remembered, “that somebody started some kind of a little campfire on the pavilion maybe or something, the fire department got it out, everything’s fine.”
But everything wasn’t fine. Pusateri says after making a few more phone calls, she went to the internet to find out more. That’s where she saw a video of the Harpers Ferry fire.
“And on the video, I can see it crossing rapidly across over toward my building and then going down the stairway and up the stairway with huge amount of speed and heat and huge flames, and my building immediately started to catch fire,” she said.
Pusateri’s building was one of four that caught fire in July. It housed five of the nine businesses destroyed by the blaze and the two apartments.
One of those businesses was Cindi Dunn’s small boutique, The Vintage Lady.
Dunn was one of two shop owners who were able to reopen at a new location in Harpers Ferry after the fire. She opened the “new” Vintage Lady just a few feet up the street from her previous location on Labor Day weekend.
“And it’s been different here, but it’s been a good different,” Dunn said, “We love it. We love the space. We love the response that people have had, and we feel like things have fallen pretty much into place.”
After the fire, the entire town felt an outpouring of support from local communities, state and federal legislators, neighboring states, and even from around the world.
Then in September, West Virginia University’s Extension Service stepped forward and provided aid by way of contractors and other experts to look over the damage and figure out the best plan for rebuilding and for the future of Harpers Ferry as a whole.
Demolition began just before Thanksgiving, and Harpers Ferry Mayor, Gregory Vaughn, anticipates debris removal will be complete by January 2016. He also says property owners, like Barbara Pusateri, will be able to get their building permits by February if not sooner.
And Vaughn says getting the buildings to look period again won’t be difficult either.
“The exterior of the four buildings, or the three buildings, the historic ones, escaped a lot of the damage,” he noted, “Most of the damage was inside, and although there was charring and burning, the wood is 1840, 1830, it’s not your typical two by fours that you buy today that is quick growth wood. This wood is extremely durable.”
Both Mayor Vaughn and property owner, Barbara Pusateri say they’re unsure exactly how much the rebuilding process will end up costing, but both expect it to be pretty staggering considering the millions of dollars in damages.
Pusateri says the debris removal of her building alone cost $100,000 and says most of what she’s paying for her rebuild is out of pocket or through her insurance.
But like the day of the fire, she says she’s trying to stay positive through this process.
“It’s still very depressing, especially at Christmas,” Pusateri said, “because all the buildings were probably the most beautiful during the Christmas season, and a lot of my friends have been sending me pictures of my building; how it looked a year ago, how it looked two years ago with all the decorations up, the shops all open, and looking at those, it’s very sad, but then again, I know that, that same appearance, if not a better appearance is going to come in the future, and I just have to, you know, wait and be patient; that’s the biggest thing.”
Pusateri says she hopes she can begin moving in new tenants by summer 2016.
The cause of the fire is still undetermined and the investigation into its start is still ongoing.