Albert St. fire destroys five buildings; four families left homeless

There was no loss of life but tonight business owners and residents of the downtown area are still reeling from a disastrous fire that threatened to wipe out the heart of the commercial capital. News Five’s cameraman team captured the powerful images last night and this morning News Five’s Janelle Chanona compiled the story.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting

This was the dramatic scene that unfolded on Albert Street just after ten on Wednesday night.

Francisco Magana, Odette’s Apartment Resident
“The smoke woke me up and I went to my neighbours to wake them up as well and we ran down and that was about it. Later on when the fire fighters started breaking down the shutters, we saw fire from the roof of Romac’s.”

Janelle Chanona
“What was going through your mind Francisco?”

Francisco Magana
“First I just thought to get out of there because smoke was all on the building, couldn’t see anything, couldn’t breathe so we just came down. Afterwards I tried to go up to see if I can get some stuff out but it was too much smoke up there.”

The fire department initially responded with two trucks but was forced to bring in three more to battle the blaze. By the time the inferno was brought under control around one-thirty Thursday morning, it had destroyed five buildings, damaged three others, left four families homeless, displaced fourteen more people and resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in structure and property loss.

Janelle Chanona
“What you wah do now, where you wah stay?”

PC Noe Chup, Odette’s Apartment Resident

“Well this morning I me get some clothes, I have to try find somewhere else to stay.”

According to the National Fire Service, it will take almost a week to ascertain the cause of the blaze but initial findings are that the ignition point was in the rear section of an upper floor in the Romac’s building.

Janelle Chanona

“How much you estimated you’ve lost?”

Umesh Mahitani, Romac’s Owner
“Everything. Everything.”

Umesh Mahitani owns Mikado’s and the Romac’s building but he says he doesn’t know how the fire started.

Umesh Mahitani
“That’s what’s baffling us right now because there’s nothing up there that’s combustible and we have a protocol in place that even at this building here and at that building there, we have people that check all three floors right. From top to bottom, it’s always checked before we leave in the evening so it’s very surprising to us how this could have happened.”

Janelle Chanona
“I know it’s an old building, do you think maybe wiring?”

Umesh Mahitani
”No, when we took it over four years ago, we had the whole place rewired and that was also double checked with the insurance company and they approved everything, took pictures at that time and they approved it.”

While Mahitani’s building was insured, other businesses were not.

Naim El-Amin, CD Plus Owner
“Everything weh I work fah gawn up inna smoke, practically everything you know. So, I just di wait fu everything die out so I could actually go in deh and see fu myself but basically everything gawn.”

Naim El-Amin operated CD Plus from inside the Shoman building. The electronic contents of his store are considered a complete loss. In the face of the depressing scene, an emotional El-Amin tried to stay positive.

Naim El-Amin
“Faith in God that’s about it you know because I neva really have anything put aside because business mi already slow so basically everything gawn. After this all I wah need fu go pan dah me name. I have a good name so if I could rebuild back that wah be weh wah help me.”

Mickey Craig, Co-Owner, The Book Centre
“All our products are paper products no, and if the fire didn’t destroy it, the water has gone ahead and done the rest you know.”

One of the hardest hit businesses was the Book Centre on Church Street, which also housed the Thrift Center store. Co-owner Mickey Craig helplessly watched the destruction last night but as he surveyed the scene today, the businessman put his trust in God.

Mickey Craig
“I was very distressed but I think I used a euphemism now that I see it, I’m devastated, now that I see what’s in there because last night we couldn’t get in at the time so everything’s gone, everything’s gone but as they say in your death announcements, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away and He gave us this business, He’s going to help us rebuild, I’m pretty certain of that.”

According to Craig, the book store will be relocated to the company’s warehouse on the Northern Highway which will be converted into a retail facility. The list of fire victims also includes the residents of the Good Samaritan House.

Laura Esquivel, Belize City Councillor
“What has happened so far is that we know that there were fourteen adults in this building over here and they have been relocated through the Human Development Department to the Golden Haven home. They are receiving their food, their shelter, some clothing and some assistance.”

But in the aftermath of the fire, it is also clear that the employees of the businesses affected by the blaze will be out of work for some time to come. There are twenty employees from the Book Centre and Thrift Stores and thirty-two others employed inside businesses inside the Romac’s plaza.

Laura Esquivel
“So far eighteen of those employees will be absorbed by other companies related to the Romac’s complex but we are asking assistance from the business houses out there if you have any vacancies there’s twenty people from Thrift stores who will need some assistance and also the additional people from the Romac’s complex that will also be needing some assistance.”

Phillip Willoughby, Belize City Coordinator, Emergency Management
“All persons who suffered economic losses or social losses will be dealt with and be taken care of.”

Melvin Hulse, Minister of NEMO
“The message is that the system and the organization, NEMO is on top of things. We are making sure that B.E.L. not only disconnect the wires but make sure it grounded so that anything, no body can get hurt. And that’s the best we can do. We make sure that we stay here as long as long as it take to secure it and gradually we’ll go in there when a place is properly soaked because we can’t sacrifice life, the flipping building down bun already okay. So when we know it is safe we’ll go in there, clear a little bit more and make sure we out everything and then find out what the heck started it.”

Ted Smith, Assistant Fire Chief
“The near proximity of other structures was so near that you were unable to get the angle you need so basically doing what you call a defensive fire fight.”

But while investigators probe the cause of the fire, Wednesday night’s inferno has also highlighted the lack of resources available to the National Fire Service. According to fire chief Henry Baizar, a second ladder truck would have assisted fire fighting efforts.

Henry Baizar, Fire Chief
“Men on hand lines for those types of fires it is impossible for them to fight a fire like that. You need equipment and equipment that can overlook. You see even though we were throwing water on the building, we really don’t know where those water were going. But if you are up there you can see where the fire is at and you can actually put the water on the fire instead of just throwing the water.”

Janelle Chanona
“Today business owners spent the day accessing the damage and as soon as the smoke stops, the tough challenge of rebuilding will begin so that one day soon, a sense of normalcy will return to Belize’s busiest street.”

Beaulah Sikaffy, Owner, Sikaffy’s
“We are going to be open tomorrow. Today we just gone in. We have a little bit of clean up to do. We have a little bit of water damage but nothing much but we will be open tomorrow for business.”

Janelle Chanona
“You wah set up somewhere temporary?”

Icenie Herrera, Owner, Cenie’s Deli
“Yes. Right in front of Mikado’s starting tomorrow morning for breakfast and lunch.”

Janelle Chanona
“So you wah have wah lee stall?”

Icenie Herrera
“Yeah, tables and thing.”

Laura Esquivel
“We know also that this area, because it’s the prime location for business, we believe that it will be rebuilt very quickly, if not by the current owners, by other people who will be interested in purchasing the properties. It will be rebuilt pretty quickly. We can only hope that the people themselves who have been affected can get some help soon.”

The fire scene was a minor tourist attraction today and resulted in temporary closures of businesses in the vicinity. While Church Street will remain temporarily closed to vehicular traffic, Albert Street will reopen to motorists tomorrow. Reporting for News Five I am Janelle Chanona.

Fire victims can contact the Belize City NEMO coordinator at the council’s offices or at 621-9222. The last devastating fire to affect the downtown area was in June 1997 when twenty-one buildings were either destroyed or damaged, thirty-nine families affected and businesses suffered almost four million dollars in damage.
Live and let live