Residents rise from the ashes

HAYMARKET — By trade, Greg Breeden is a senior officer for Haymarket’s tiny police department.

Wednesday afternoon, however, Breeden, a 19-year law enforcement veteran, was part of a unique search-and-rescue team.

Breeden was among town employees digging through the ashes of the gutted Town Hall, destroyed by fire just after midnight Tuesday.

“We’re just trying to salvage what we can,” said Breeden, covered in soot. “Everything in this town was kept here.”

From speeding tickets to tax forms to board meetings, the Haymarket Town Hall was the community’s government nerve center. Now, all that is left inside the hollow building are a few boxes of documents, spared from the fire that ravaged the 119-year-old wooden edifice.

Mayor Jack Kapp said he was saddened by the loss of property but relieved that Town Hall was not occupied when the fire began. “The bright side, if there is a bright side, is that no one was hurt,” he said. “The fire department did a fantastic job of controlling the fire. It’s amazing the building is still intact.”

At around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, a bicyclist passing the building noticed smoke and flames rolling out of three sides, said Battalion Chief C. Hadden Culp, a Prince William Fire and Rescue Department spokesman.

The passerby called the fire department, which had a unit on the scene almost immediately, Breeden said.

“If it wasn’t for the quick response, this building would probably be on the ground right now,” said Breeden, surrounded by a melted fax machine and disintegrated desks in the Town Hall’s top floor police headquarters.

“It’s amazing that the whole building didn’t go. This whole place is made of sawmill lumber, and it burns pretty quick,” he said.

Breeden later made his way down to the first floor of the building, where fire officials believe the blaze started in an electrical outlet. He pointed out computers that were completely unrecognizable and several pictures of past Haymarket mayors, their faces blacked by smoke and heat.

The blaze caused at least $60,000 worth of damage, said Robin Copenhaver, a deputy town clerk, and Officer Acrey Nicholson, who were helping with the cleanup.

“This is a catastrophic fire,” the mayor said Wednesday night. “We lost a lot of irreplaceable things.” Kapp said insurance will cover the cost of damages.

Despite the extensive damage, most of the town’s important documents kept in fire-proof cabinets were spared.

The police department already had planned to move to a nearby shopping center along with other town offices. The old Town Hall was going to be made into a museum. Since much of the building remained structurally intact, those plans will likely still be realized, Breeden said.

Temporary police offices opened Wednesday across Washington Street, with donations already pouring in from around the community, said Robert Snitzer, a Haymarket resident and Fairfax volunteer firefighter, who also helped Wednesday.

“We got our phone system set up across the street right away, so our infrastructure stayed intact,” Snitzer said. “Some have donated computers, too. That’s the whole point; when something like this happens, everyone rallies around the town.”

But the devastated building and outpouring of goodwill should not be construed as an opportunity to skip out on paying taxes, Copenhaver joked.

“We’ve had people calling in already, asking if they still had to pay their taxes,” she said. “I told them that we need it now more than ever.”

Staff writer Adam H. Beasley can be reached at (703) 878-8065.

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