Firefighters had to deal with freezing rain and frozen ground while battling the blaze that broke out at Keokuk City Hall on Tuesday night. And while the fire took a heavy toll on the two-story brick building at 415 Blondeau Street, not everything was lost.
Fire Chief Gabe Rose said the call came in to his department at about 7:30 p.m. He said immediately upon arrival, an “all-call” was signaled, bringing in off-duty firefighters as well.
Rose said it took about 30 minutes to put out the fire.
“They did a really good job, especially with the weather conditions,” said Rose. “We had several people fall flat on their backs because of the ice. City crews did a good job as well, coming along with their salt and sand trucks to help us out. As bad as it looks, it could have been a lot worse.”
Rose said the only injuries of note were the firefighters who slipped on the ice during the response. The chief said the fire started in the back of the building and quickly spread to the front, but a cause has yet to be determined.
Rose said the first floor has substantial damage from fire, water, and smoke. He said the basement sustained water damage and the second floor sustained water and smoke damage.
Mayor Tom Richardson said he was stunned when he learned of the fire from his granddaughter.
“I said, ‘You’re kidding me, come on,’” said Richardson. “She said ‘No grandpa, it’s really true.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ All the things are going through your head. When I got here, at least the fire was out and it was smoke, but looking in it was just so devastating. The first floor was totally destroyed and it’s really depressing.”
Chief Rose said once the fire was under control, firefighters were able to enter the building and save several items. He said they started with the city’s computer server.
“We are very familiar with the building,” said Rose. "We made a conscious effort to go in and get the main server. That really houses a lot of the software that belongs to the city. That was a conscious effort to save that before it was destroyed.”
The firefighters were also able to save an item for Mayor Richardson.
Richardson said the fire did not reach his office, which is in the front of the building, but the office did sustain heavy smoke and water damage.
He said in his office was a plaque that featured his father’s purple heart from World War II and a couple other pieces of memorabilia related to his father’s military service.
Richardson said a firefighter told him he could go in and grab anything he needed. Richardson said he asked only for the plaque.
“That’s one of things from my dad that is very precious to me,” said Richardson. “It’s very important to have that. I said everything else, let it go, there’s nothing that can’t be replaced except that.”
City Administrator Cole O’Donnell said he was also able to salvage a collection of items from his grandfather’s service in World War I. He said all the other personal pictures from his office are gone.
O’Donnell said after learning of the fire, his city administrator “switch” kicked in. He said he immediately contacted the insurance company to start the claim.
“I was up until about 1:00 a.m. texting people,” said O’Donnell. “I woke up at 5:00 this morning and started texting and emailing more people as well.”
O’Donnell said the city will temporarily relocate City Hall to the third floor of Pilot Grove Bank at the corner of 6th and Main. He said efforts are underway to get internet and phone services transferred over as well as to get the city’s computer server up and running.
O’Donnell said the Feb. 7 city council meeting will also be held as scheduled with a new location: the former Torrence Elementary school, which houses the school district’s administrative offices and preschool.
O’Donnell said the discussion will soon shift to finding a new permanent home for city government.
“As soon as we get our feet under us, that’s when it starts,” said O’Donnell. “We already got the wheels turning on ideas. We will wait to see what the insurance company says about the building and go from there.”
Mayor Richardson said the employees who work at city hall are spread out. Some are helping to clear what records can be saved from the building while others are preparing the new temporary office at Pilot Grove Bank.
Richardson said the community has responded as well: restaurants have offered to feed employees, contractors donated employees to remove items and equipment, and businesses offered up space for city government to operate.
He said, "As usual, when something like this happens in Keokuk, people step up.”