There’s still no determination of what started the massive fire that destroyed most of Aberdeen’s Armory Building Saturday morning, but city officials have begun investigating and examining its interior.
The concrete building that housed the Aberdeen Museum of History, the Coastal Community Action Program and the Senior Center appears as a vacant hulk, roofless with blackened windows, and full of charred rubble. One of the biggest questions now is what will be recovered from that rubble.
Hundreds of people gathered under a brilliant blue sky and billowy white clouds Saturday morning to watch the fire, which was reported at about 9:30 a.m. Fourteen fire departments battled the blaze, including some from Thurston County.
Even Monday, fire officials still weren’t sure all the smouldering hotspots had been put out.
Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson said his “number one priority” is assessing what can be salvaged from the building, as well as the artifacts. The archives and documents in the basement were not damaged by fire, but they were flooded.
Workers with the Washington State Archives brought boxes of historic records from the building’s basement to a facility in Tumwater. On Wednesday, archivists and volunteers began sorting thousands of damaged photos, documents, films and other artifacts in the hopes of salvaging them before mold sets in.
The work was expected to take several days.
The fire-charred building was constructed in 1922 for use as an armory and was used that way until the National Guard moved to Clemons Road in 1978. It was then purchased by the Swanson family, which owned grocery stores in Aberdeen, and then donated to the city of Aberdeen, which owns it now. The non-profit museum was established in the early 1980s.
The fire alarms in the building were part of a monitored system that automatically notifies 911 when they go off.
Aberdeen Battalion Chief Damon Lillybridge said while the fire department will be looking to figure out the origin and cause of the fire, firefighters also will try to preserve exposed items and artifacts.
“If it means we just have to put salvage covers on stuff so the rain doesn’t hurt anything until we can get it out of there, that’s what we'll do,” said Lillybridge.
The city of Aberdeen owns the armory building and the museum collection. On Monday, Larson and insurance representatives met to discuss claims and future plans.
Grays Harbor County Commissioners are discussing ways to provide some relief to the Aberdeen Museum, senior center and Coastal Community Action Program. Commissioner Randy Ross said they are working with the state to figure out some way financial assistance could be provided.
“We can’t (the county) gift public funds,” Ross said. “We are willing to help in any way we can.”
Employees of CCAP are moving into the Seafirst Building in downtown Aberdeen and expected to reopen their services by Wednesday.
The Grays Harbor Genealogical Society library, which kept an extensive collection of funeral records and obituaries dating back as far as the late 1800s, kept some of their records in physical form only. While some were kept on a thumb drive, the society’s research chairman Bonnie Johannes said much of what they had was permanently lost.
“We must’ve had 25,000 hard copies (of obituaries), at least, so it’s a tremendous loss,” said Johannes, who was having a monthly meeting with the Genealogical Society in Hoquiam on Saturday morning when they heard about the fire.
From drone photos of the building after the fire was extinguished, Johannes guessed their entire space was likely lost, except for maybe some files tightly kept in a metal cabinet.
Aberdeen City Council member Karen Rowe and her Founders Day co-chair Janet Bess also noted that this year’s event proceeds will be donated to the museum’s immediate needs. “It’s for things they’re going to need before the insurance checks come through,” Bess said. “We’re celebrating the history of Aberdeen.”
Aberdeen Museum of History volunteers and board members met Tuesday to begin talking about rebuilding the museum.
Longtime museum volunteer Becky Carossino came bearing buttons she’s had printed. They read, “Rising From the Ashes Is What We Do!” It included the years 1903, 2002 and 2018 for the Black Friday fire, Weatherwax High School fire and museum fire.
Local fundraising efforts are already underway. The Friends of the Museum Board has established a website to collect tax-free donations: aberdeenmuseumofhistorydonations.org.
The Grays Harbor Community Foundation has donated $10,000 to help with initial expenses.