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Sep 30, 2002

Fire destroys top floor of Paslow Bldg.

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The Monday morning quarterbacks and armchair firemen wasted no time in criticising Sunday’s performance by the National Fire Service. But when all is said and done, what could have gone down as one of the most devastating fires in the nation’s history was instead confined to the top floor of the Paslow Building. When News 5′s Rick Romero, Luis Sosa and Stephen Ferguson reached the scene shortly before noon, smoke was already obliterating the sun and it looked like Belize City was in for big trouble. Jacqueline Woods picks up the narrative and follows it through to today’s assessment of damage.

Jacqueline Woods, Reporting

It is believed the fire was smouldering for quite some time inside the third floor of the Paslow Building before it finally erupted into flames. The blaze spread quickly spread throughout the Magistrate Court that occupied the top floor of the historic three-storey wooden structure.

The National Fire Service worked hard to fight the conflagration, but it was difficult. The building’s design prevented fire-fighters from entering the burning building and getting access to the third floor to attack the flames.

Ted Smith, Operations Manager, National Fire Service

“Because of the height and the type of structure, wooden structure, you have to be careful how you commit people into the building in a wooden structure that’s well developed in the middle of the section, as collapse will start to occur when you commit people into a wooden structure that you have to use staircase and other areas to get up, and you can lose them.”

Though the fire-fighters were having difficulty in reaching the flames that had engulfed the third floor, they did manage to prevent the fire from spreading to the two lower floors. As a ground crew sprayed water onto the building, the new ladder truck was brought to the scene to identify from above the areas that were burning and more effectively battle the blaze. Towering above the building, the truck unleashed a thousand gallons of water every minute that quickly brought the fire under control.

Today, fire investigators began the arduous task of determining where the fire started and what was its cause. Although there has been no shortage of speculation, Ted Smith, Operations Manager at the National Fire Service, says it is just too early to say.

Ted Smith

“At this present moment we don’t even know the area of origin, much less talking about the cause of the fire. Because you have established an area origin before you could even consider looking for a cause…an ignition source. So it’s sad that for some reason we’re hearing supposed cause of the fire on the radio and we ourselves the investigator haven’t yet commence this investigation the way we want. The fire service’s job initially is to focus on outing the fire, that’s what we were doing yesterday, outing the fire. When we finish outing the fire, then we think about investigate.”

It took fire fighters just under two hours to control the blaze. While the top floor was totally destroyed, both the first and second suffered severe water damage. The Post Office, which was recently renovated, was under a half foot of water.

Compton Hinkson, Post Master General

“The fire did not really burn anything for us here on the ground floor, but the water is horrendous. The damage is terrible to the mail items that were not delivered over the weekend. For example, mail for post office boxes or mail that when out on Saturday and people were not at home, so those were brought back in, those were the mail that was damaged. Fortunately, we had our mail van at the airport when the fire started, so all that mail that came in was securely locked up in the mail van at the police compound. So we haven’t got much damage, except for the small quantity of mail that was actually in the post office.”

To help preserve those letters that were damaged, persons who rent post office boxes at the Paslow Building are asked to go and clear their mails as soon as possible.

Compton Hinkson

“If we would have to go to the box and clear each individual box, we might damage the mail further. But if they come and clear their box, they might have an idea who their mails are coming from and they might see something wet, but could recognise the sender’s address and they could get back to those people and tell them, listen we had a fire and this was the result of that, you need to send that letter or whatever back to me.”

According to Post Master General, Compton Hinkson, while services at the Paslow Building have been temporarily closed, they will continue to operate next door from the parcel post building and their branch on Dolphin Street.

Compton Hinkson

“The parcel post section, we have the operations going on as per usual. We have been delivering our express mail since nine o’clock this morning, we have our vehicle at the airport taking mails that were posted and bringing in new mails, and we are sending out our mails to our district offices.

Jacqueline Woods

“So for those people out there who would want to mail a letter, where should they go?”

Compton Hinkson

“They should come at the parcel post section, we are cashing money orders starting one o’clock and they can mail their letters, that is in effect right now.”

Meanwhile on the second floor, the Municipal Court, which is managed by the Belize City Council, sustained severe water and other damages. The floor was covered with debris after a section of the ceiling caved in. Much of the furniture inside the offices and courtrooms remained intact, but what was left of the Magistrate’s Court on the first floor was unrecognizable. This morning, Acting Prime Minister Johnny Briceño, including the Attorney General, Godfrey Smith and Minister Dickie Bradley toured the site to survey the damage.

Johnny Briceño, Acting Prime Minister

“Right now we’ll be having the engineers to look at the structure to see how badly it was damaged. At least to the naked eye, to informed eye, it seems that it did not get badly damaged structurally. Once we can attest to that, then certainly as a government we need to look to get the necessary finding to restore the building. I was speaking to CEO Miss Sandra Hall, talking about the possibility of going to UNESCO under their cultural programme; maybe we can get some funding to restore this building.”

Compton Hinkson

“Well, it could be restored, but if we could get something modern and better for the post office, we would definitely like to see a proper post office set up. Remember this was once a store and it was not built for a post office, so we have been working around this to try to get it to be a post office, which is difficult at times. But if we could get a spanking new building, there’s no objection to that; a purpose built post office building.”

The Paslow building, which was named after prominent Baymen, Thomas Paslow, was built in the 1920s. Jacqueline Woods reporting for News 5.

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