A host of businesses were devastated yesterday as a giant fire swept through a three-storey building on Front Street.
Firefighters tackled huge flames amid thick black smoke for several hours after the blaze broke out at about 4.30am.
No one was injured but damage worth hundreds of thousands of dollars was caused to Onion Jack’s, Chewstick, and about seven businesses under the umbrella of Queen Management Services. Fire crews remained vigilant last night as hotspots continued to flare up at the scene.
The return of trucks to Front Street prompted calls that the fire had rekindled, but a spokeswoman for the service said routine checks would continue until the ruins could be thoroughly soaked down.
Onion Jack’s, which bore the brunt of the flames in the early part of the day, lost stock worth an estimated at $300,000 while Bermuda Executive Services, located above the tourist shop, fears it has lost “18 years of work”.
The fire brigade succeeded in preventing the blaze spreading to the Freisenbruch-Meyer Group building near by, but smoke damage was extensive in many businesses.
The cause of the fire was not established yesterday, and crews were continuing to assess structural damage late into the day, amid concerns they could collapse.
Sources also told The Royal Gazette that the fire service’s ladder truck had been long out of service, and that a host of other mechanical problems had grown into a longstanding source of frustration for firefighters.
At the scene yesterday morning, Onion Jack’s owner Richard Lines said the fire had become “a monster” by the time he reached Hamilton.
“I just felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know whether to scream or grab a fire extinguisher,” Mr Lines said. “I was dumbfounded. There were these big embers flying up it was like you were in a movie. It was surreal — unreal.”
Gavin Smith, the owner of Chewstick, which moved into its premises only last year, was equally dismayed at the loss of cultural artefacts and historical archives that had been donated to the charity.
Speaking after the blaze had been brought under control, assistant chief fire officer Dana Lovell told this newspaper: “There was a major structural fire in Hamilton at 75 and 77 Front Street, the buildings that house Onion Jack and Chewstick.
“The seat of the fire extended throughout the structure of the Onion Jack’s building, totally destroying it.
“I can confirm there have been no injuries to any firefighters; at this time they are quite exhausted.
“But we are pleased to say they are safe. We have not been able to provide a preliminary cause of fire. There has been significant heat and smoke damage to the surrounding buildings.”
Asked whether the structures could collapse, Mr Lovell said: “There is always that concern, certainly with the casualty building.”
Sixteen vehicles and more than 30 fire personnel tackled the fire throughout the day.
They used two handheld hoses to shoot water into the ground floor, with vehicle-mounted hoses for the upper floors.
Their efforts were temporarily assisted by heavy rainfall from a thunderstorm that began at about 7am. By 7.30am the heavy rainfall had subsided, and the fire service continued to tackle the blaze using seawater pumped from the ocean.
It took until midafternoon for the area to be deemed safe enough for Front Street to reopen to traffic.
Dozens of people watched the drama unfold early in the morning. They included Patrick Outerbridge, the customer liaison manager and building manager at Freisenbruch-Meyer, who was going for a run when he was stopped by an acquaintance and informed of the fire.
“I sprinted down here,” he said.
Referring to the Onion Jack’s building, Mr Outerbridge said: “It’s old wood in an old building. Wooden floors, wooden stairwells: it’s like stepping back in time.
“They said that the flames were getting in the back of our second and third floor, and there’s a lot of smoke damage.
“It’s really shocking. We’re just hoping that we don’t have that much damage, but the amount of smoke will be a problem. It’s our filing room, our servers.”
William Madeiros, the executive vice-president of Freisenbruch-Meyer, said: “The good news is that our team is safe, our data and our clients’ data and records are safe, and we’re going to do the best we can to get up and running as quickly as possible.
“We’re very anxious to get back in our building, and we have a disaster recovery plan.”
Senator Jeff Baron, the Minister of National Security, told The Royal Gazette: “We are reminded of the dedication, hard work and bravery of the men and women of the Bermuda Fire Service who attended the scene and contained the fire.
“Obviously, there was major disruption to traffic and people going about their daily lives.
“It is really tragic and my heart goes out to the business owners. Many of us patronise their businesses to buy Bermuda and experience Bermudian culture. My heart goes out to them and I hope that, with the help of the community, they will see a rise and return to their businesses as quickly as possible.”