DES MOINES, IA - A massive fire swept through a more than century-old building that was being renovated in downtown Des Moines early Saturday morning, causing its upper floors to collapse and authorities to close down numerous streets.
No one was injured, but Assistant City Manager Matt Anderson told the Des Moines Register that the former Younkers department store building, which dates to 1899, cannot be salvaged and will have to be demolished.
"It was tough to hear," Anderson said of the building, which was being converted into apartments and retail space. "I've worked on that project for a long time. I love that building."
A state inspector also said the building is considered to be an asbestos-contaminated site and will require specialized cleanup.
Des Moines Fire Department spokesman Brian O'Keefe said the department first got word of a fire at the seven-floor building at about 12:50 a.m. Saturday, and arrived to find flames leaping from the upper floors. About an hour later, those floors had collapsed, he said.
"As they were looking into the floors, every floor they were checking had heavy smoke and fire damage," O'Keefe told the Des Moines Register. "They could hear internal collapses occurring. So the command pulled those people out and gave an evacuation signal."
The Younkers store was a landmark in Des Moines for years, but the building closed in 2005. In September, a Wisconsin-based company began work on a $36 million renovation.
Authorities said it wasn't clear what sparked the blaze.
"Being under construction, there's so many variables," O'Keefe said.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie told WHO-TV that the building at 701 Walnut Street was a key part of a downtown revitalization project.
"While it's a devastating thing to see a landmark like this lost ... Des Moines is really on the move, and this won't hold us back," Cownie said. "But it's going to cause us to reassess what Walnut Street is going to look like."
Each of the Younkers building's floors are believed to have had asbestos felt between them, as well as areas around pipes, inspector Tom Wuehr of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources told the Des Moines Register. Wuehr said it's unlikely that workers or people in the downtown area will be exposed to harmful levels of asbestos, a known carcinogen.
The large amounts of water used to put out the fire would have helped contain the asbestos, he said.
KCCI reported that debris from the fire collapsed onto the skywalk leading east from the Younkers building. The Hub Tower and the EMC Insurance Companies building have also suffered some damage, the Des Moines Register reported, as has the Greater Des Moines Partnership building.
EMC, which has 1,200 workers in downtown Des Moines, sustained smoke and water damage to one of its main office buildings, but plans to be open for business Monday, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Hovick said.
The Greater Des Moines Partnership, an economic and community development group, is trying to locate temporary office space, said spokeswoman Susan Ramsey. The group's business will resume by early next week, she said.
Authorities closed some nearby streets and skywalks on Saturday morning, and city buses were detoured to avoid the area.
Brian Crall said he woke up to the sound of fire engines and the orange glow of the blaze across the street from his apartment.
"It just sounded like 100 car accidents happening at once," he told the Register, adding that he went out in the street and noticed, "The flames were really like three or four stories taller than the actual building."