Residents fled in whatever they were wearing or could wrap around themselves as a stubborn, smoky early-morning fire swept through a Downtown apartment building Thursday, causing no injuries but leaving 27 people homeless and severely damaging a restaurant.
Firefighters battled the blaze at the 24-unit Capitol Hill Apartments building, 24 N. Webster St., for more than eight hours Thursday, alternately attacking the flames from the inside and abandoning it to fight it from the outside amid fears the roof would collapse.
For hours, a thick smoke spread over much of Downtown, prompting a short evacuation of the nearby YWCA residential facility.
The fire was reported at 5:02 a.m. and was largely extinguished around 1 p.m., Madison Fire Department spokeswoman Lori Wirth said. Firefighters were still putting out hot spots later in the day, and a crew was expected to stay overnight to ensure the fire didn't rekindle.
Residents left the building on their own and called 911, Wirth said. Firefighters made two sweeps of the building and found no one left, she said.
"We are not aware of any injuries," she said.
The building appeared to be a total loss, and some of the upper level bricks had fallen off the structure, but there was no indication any other structures on the block were in danger. The Bartell Community Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St., is also on the same block.
The fire shut down traffic east of Capitol Square for several hours, snarling the morning rush hour.
Michael McGovern, 26, said he was sound asleep at 5:30 a.m. when firefighters broke into his apartment.
"They broke down the door because they couldn't rouse me," he said.
McGovern lives on the first floor, where he said his main room was hazy with smoke. He stood at the corner of Webster Street and East Washington Avenue with about two dozen other tenants, barefoot and wrapped in a blanket provided by the Fire Department.
First floor resident Becca Terdich, 26, said she awoke a little after 5 a.m. to what she thought were raindrops falling on her air conditioner. Then she smelled smoke and realized the sounds were coming from a dining wall room.
"It was popping and blistering and really hot when I touched it," Terdich said.
She knocked on doors up and down her hallway to alert fellow residents as she fled, she said.
Terdich left with her flip flops, purse, laptop and cell phone. She doesn't have renter's insurance and plans to live with her boyfriend for the short-term.
"I have no idea what I'm going to have, but I have a feeling that I'm going to have nothing," she said.
Jonathan Jacobs, 27, was fretting about the computer he left behind with his graduate school thesis on it. He has renter's insurance but said that won't replace other cherished items, like photos from trips.
Jacobs, who left his apartment with his cell phone but no wallet spent part of the day replacing his driver's license, not knowing whether he'd get ever see his old one again.
Like other residents, Jacobs also spent the day buying clothes, calling family members and friends and making short-term living arrangements.
The American Red Cross - Badger Chapter was on site to help displaced residents. The Salvation Army opened a canteen to provide emergency crews with food and drinks.
Wirth said the department is looking into whether fire alarms and smoke detectors in the building went off and if the systems in place were operable.
A number of residents interviewed said they "heard nothing," she said.
By 3 p.m., East Washington Avenue near the Capitol had reopened to traffic.However, two blocks of North Webster and East Mifflin streets remained closed.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation and no damage estimate has been given.
Nick Mortensen, 33, said he'll likely head to Green Bay later Thursday to stay with family. He has renter's insurance and said he's chosen to view the fire as an opportunity.
"I got my wallet, I got my medication, and I got my car keys. I'll figure it out," he said. "It's an interesting situation having the opportunity to start over."
Amanda Hahn, 27, said she planned to close on a house Thursday but wasn't able to get back to her apartment to get her identification or her car keys.
Capt. Brad Olson said tenants should know Friday if they can re-enter their apartments to assess what's salvageable, however they may not be able to take anything with them. Tenants may be able to recover some belongings later, he said.
Jonny Hunter, one of five partners who own Underground Kitchen, the restaurant on the ground floor of the building, said early Thursday afternoon he had not been able to view the extent of the damage to the restaurant and that he had no information on how the fire started.
"I can't imagine the building will survive this," he said.
Hunter said all of the partners were out of the business by about midnight Wednesday and that the bartender left about 3:30 a.m. or 4 a.m. and reported nothing suspicious.
The restaurant opened last October to rave reviews, serving mostly locally grown food in a largely communal setting. Much of the décor was plucked from old buildings and repurposed, including the tables, all hand built out of Wisconsin wood, some of it from old barns.
"It was a labor of love, so that's the really hard thing for us," Hunter said.
The space formerly housed Cafe Montmartre.
Olson said all three floors of the apartment building were affected by the fire, but he didn't know how many apartments on each floor had been damaged.
The fire was so stubborn because it was an older building, built in 1924, and had a complex configuration of air shafts and ventilation that allowed the fire to spread and hide, Wirth said. The building's rubber roof, designed to keep rain out, also kept out water from fire hoses, she said.
Wirth said one driver in the area had been cited by police for driving over a five-inch diameter firehose.
"Don't do that," Wirth said. "And if you can, try to avoid this area."
Watching the building burn from atop the nearby Capitol Square North parking ramp, UW-Madison worker John Sinclair, 25, said he felt lucky to get out of the building when he did with the few possessions he had managed to grab. He had just signed a lease for another year.
Sinclair was awakened about 5 a.m. by the sound of fire engines outside his apartment on the building's third floor, the middle of three levels of apartments.
"When I looked outside I noticed (firefighters) were looking back up at me," he said.
Sinclair said friends have offered him places to live temporarily.