Flames engulfed the Georgetown Neighborhood Library yesterday afternoon, collapsing the building’s roof and destroying several historical relics housed inside.

Around 12:30 p.m., the three-alarm blaze drew nearly 200 firefighters to Wisconsin Avenue and R Street, where the library is located, causing Wisconsin to be closed and traffic diverted. The 12 people inside the building, including patrons and library employees, all left the building unharmed.

As of last night, fire officials had not yet determined the cause of the fire, but witnesses said the flames appeared to originate on the second floor of the western side of the library before spreading east, engulfing the roof and upper floors.

Firefighters began to remove what documents and artwork they could from the building about two hours after the blaze began, before the fire was completely doused. They laid the items, some charred and soaked, along Wisconsin Avenue.

“That’s the one painting that I’m most upset about,” librarian Jerry McCoy said, pointing to an 1840 portrait of Yarrowmamout, a slave in 19th-century Georgetown. “This is what I was going to save if this ever happened.”

The Yarrowmamout portrait is part of the Peabody Collection, the library’s most valuable collection, which was kept on the building’s second floor, which is where the fire is thought to have started. It housed documents unique to the neighborhood’s history including Civil War-era maps, bound newspaper volumes and bound public records.The extent of the damage to the collection is unknown, however the Yarrowmamout portrait only suffered small damage, however McCoy said that the background of the painting appeared lighter than normal.

Officials from the District’s public library system said that damage to some of the library’s historical documents and artwork may be irreparable.

“I’ve been a librarian for more than 30 years, and this is the most serious fire I’ve ever seen. It’s heartbreaking,” Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian for the D.C. Public Library System, said.

While firefighters remained on scene, library officials called in a freezer truck around 3:00 p.m. with the help of the Library of Congress to preserve any items they could. Cooper said that some primary source material containing information about Georgetown’s history “may well be lost to us forever.”

McCoy and others questioned whether more might have been saved if the library had a fire-suppression system. Public buildings built in the city prior to 1974 are not required to have sprinkler systems according to Alan Etter, the fire department’s public information officer. Cooper said that the library does not have such a system.

“It’s like a dirty secret that everybody knew about,” Librarian and archivist Jerry McCoy said, referring to the possibility that a fire-suppression system could have saved some artifacts.

Cooper said that many libraries do not utilize sprinkler systems because water could damage their collections more than fire in many cases. She said that libraries are more commonly “hardwired” to a nearby fire station to accommodate quick responses in the event of fire.

Lindsay Anderson/The Hoya

“In this historic building, we did not have such a system, I am quite sure,” Cooper said.

Water pressure problems rendered two of the nearest fire hydrants to the library inoperative, but did not significantly hamper firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the flames, Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said.

The fire was the second in under 24 hours to do extensive damage to a historic D.C. site. The 134-year-old Eastern Market near Capitol Hill was ravaged by a three-alarm blaze earlier in the morning.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) said that two fires of this severity occurring at different historical D.C. buildings in one day was unprecedented to the best of their knowledge.

“It’s disconcerting,” Fenty said. “Our firefighters are doing a great job of trying to prevent [the fire] from spreading and obviously trying to save as much of this valuable art and history as possible.”

Fire officials , said that there was no indication that the library fire was connected to the blaze at Eastern Market.

He also said he will begin working “immediately” with the D.C. City Council to fund the library’s reconstruction.

“There already was money available for the reconstruction, but without any question, it’s going to cost much more now to renovate this library,” he said.

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