March 4, 2004 – North Side resident Ann Questel was at work just before noon on Thursday when she received a telephone call from an Estate Dorothea neighbor who said a building situated on property just steps away from Questel's own home was on fire.
Questel immediately drove as fast as she could to her North Side residence, fearing that the fire might spread to her house.
By the time she got home, the fire had destroyed a 12 foot by 12 foot storage shed owned by her neighbor Chrystalia Berry. But firefighters had contained the blaze, and nobody had been injured.
"My house was in jeopardy," Questel said, pointing to the side of her home nearest to the charred remains of the shed. "You can see where the paint bubbled and melted from the heat."
Cpl. Arthur Harrigan of the V.I. Fire Service was among the first firefighters on the scene. When they arrived from the Fort Christian station, the blaze was 90 percent burned out, he said. But he added: "The last 10 percent of a fire can be quite difficult. The structure was made of wood and had been used to store old newspapers and other highly flammable materials."
But nobody was hurt, and the what remained of the fire was brought under control quickly, Harrigan said, with a special emphasis on the "quickly" part — because a few hours later the firefighters at Fort Christian were called out again — to a fire in the McDonald's restaurant at Wheatley Center.
The McDonald's blaze was called in just after 5 p.m. as the firemen were reorganizing equipment used during the North Side run..
The McDonald's fire started in the kitchen, according to firefighter Daryl "Mousie" George. "There were open flames in there, and this one was a grease-fire." George said, adding that "grease fires spread quickly and easily and can be tricky to put out."
But the firefighters for the second time in one day extinguished the blaze and reported no injuries. "The McDonald's staff responded quickly and appropriately, and the building was evacuated," George said.
Harrigan said damage inside the restaurant was minimal, "mainly from the smoke and from the water we used to put out the fire."
Responding to two fires hours apart brought to the forefront concerns close to the hearts of George and his fellow Fort Christian firefighters.
George as president of the St. Thomas-St. John local of the International Association of Fire Fighters has found himself for more than a year at odds with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and his administration.
Under the terms of a contract negotiated by the administration and signed by Turnbull in October of 2002, the district firefighters are owed nearly $2 million in pay raises that have yet to materialize. In vetoing the 25th Legislature's entire fiscal year 2004 budget last December, Turnbull axed money the lawmakers appropriated to pay the firefighters — and funding to go toward reopening the fire stations on the North Side and West End of St. Thomas.
The Fortuna/Bordeaux fire station has been empty since June of 1999. The Dorothea station was closed for three and a half years, reopened in 2002 and then closed again last year. That leaves the downtown Fort Christian and eastern mid-island Tutu stations operational.
Fire Service officials estimate it could easily take 35 minutes for fire trucks to arrive on the scene of a blaze on the North Side or West End.
Andy Garcia, who manages the Friendly Gas Station in Dorothea, placed the 911 call after spotting the burning shed less than 50 yards from his gas pumps. He said it took 30 minutes for the firefighters to arrive. Harrigan and George estimated the response time at closer to 20 minutes, but George said "it could have been 30."
A weary George readily acknowledged: "We were lucky. If these fires had occurred a few hours closer together, or if they had been larger, it would have been a complete catastrophe."
Compounding the firefighters' concerns, George said, "We don't have enough equipment. We've had to go begging to the Housing, Parks and Recreation Department to get a water truck because we don't have proper pumper trucks and tankers that work."
The Northside Civic Organization has been relentless in its demands over the years that the Dorothea station be put back into service. When told about Thursday's two fires, Ann Durante-Arnold, NCO president, said she is frustrated, sad and frightened.
"There is an empty firehouse on the North Side. It was built because there are fires here," she said. "The population of this area is growing, the tax base is growing, and still there is an empty firehouse. Why?"
Jason Budsan, another NCO activist, echoed Durante-Arnold's concern. "We shouldn't being playing Russian roulette, and we are," he said. "Is somebody going to have die before this problem is fixed?"
Fire officials said the causes of the two fires were not immediately determined. Harrigan said there will be an investigation into the one in Dorothea. Personnel at the McDonald's declined to comment on the fire there.
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