UPDATE: Crane removes debris from Pasco's Liberty Theater

Owner recently spent $43,000 to renovate building into retail space.

August 14, 2013 

— Octavio Rodriguez had just finished a $43,000 renovation of the former Liberty Theater in downtown Pasco.

His new retail spaces were days away from a final city inspection when a late night fire Tuesday gutted the 98-year-old building.

“He had a lot of cleaning out to do just to get the building to the point where he could rehabilitate it,” said Mitch Nickolds, Pasco’s inspection services manager. “Obviously, now the building is a total loss.”

The raging blaze left only a concrete shell in its place by Wednesday morning.

“We put seven agencies and 60-plus firefighters on a pretty major fire in downtown, and we kept the fire in the box,” said Battalion Chief Dave Hare. “That is 100 percent effort of the crews and a collaborative effort of all the departments around here.”

Pasco fire crews were called at 11:53 p.m. and by the time they pulled out of the station the building was engulfed in flames, he said.

“Our initial goal was to try and contain the fire to this block,” Hare said as he pointed down Fourth Avenue, a main downtown Pasco street. “We had trucks around the corner in case this thing started to spread.”

Flames shot through the collapsed roof of the building and lit up the sky. Some windows on a nearby business had to be broken so crews could position themselves inside with hoses to keep the fire from spreading.

It took about two hours for crews to get control, Hare said. By 5 a.m., the blaze was mostly out and firefighters continued to spray water on the smoldering pile of rubble.

A section of Fourth Avenue between Clark and Lewis streets will remain closed today as crews continue to clean up and investigators try to determine what caused the fire.

A crane was brought in Wednesday afternoon to tear down sections of the building that were unstable. Officials were worried that three of the walls could collapse.

Knocking the walls down and removing the debris safely without damaging neighboring buildings was a difficult process, Nickolds said.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “The technical difficulty is it has to be done all from the perimeter of the building. You have to be concerned about collateral damage and public safety.”

As the crane worked, small crowds of people recorded videos and took pictures with their cellphones.

Inside the building, a molten substance formed when the melted tar from the roof mixed with other debris, Nickolds said. The charred remains will be lifted out, watered down and taken away by trucks. That process will continue today.

Once that’s done, city officials will inspect the building to make sure it is stable and safe before Rodriguez can go back inside, Nickolds said. Rodriguez declined to talk to the Herald about the fire Wednesday.

The city also plans to inspect nearby sidewalks to make sure all the water sprayed on the fire didn’t create the potential for sinkholes.

Hare said, amazingly, neighboring businesses, including a beauty shop, had no fire damage. The beauty shop had extensive water damage and a nearby dress shop had a broken front window.

The owners of the beauty shop, Pedro and Analilia Ochoa, hope to re-open once they get it cleaned up. That could take several weeks.

“We are just glad no one was in there,” Pedro Ochoa said. “We have insurance so it’s just a hiccup.”

Stylist Crystal Corral, 23, lost all of her hair styling equipment and products. She estimated she is losing $500 in appointments she was forced to cancel for the rest of the week.

“It’s very scary. With that money I pay electricity, food and bills,” she said. “I have a daughter, and I told her dad back-to-school shopping may be tight.”

Ana Ochoa-Guizar runs the Exotic Flamingo dress shop across the street. Though she expects business to be slow for the next few days, the block where her family owns several stores will bounce back, she said.

“It’s hard because they were fixing that place up,” she said. “Luckily, there was no businesses inside yet.”

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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