Cause of downtown fire still unknown

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Nicola Crean

City officials continue to investigate Friday’s downtown Champaign fire, which resulted in the collapse of a 130-year-old building and $3.5 million in damages, according to preliminary estimates.

The city’s Metropolitan Building, located on the corner of Neil and Church streets, fell after burning during the early hours of Friday morning.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, which can sometimes slow down the cleanup process, said Captain Bob Quinlan of the Champaign Fire Department.

“How long the investigation can take can vary especially since this is much more involved than a small fire,” Quinlan said. “It will continue until they are satisfied with all the facts they get.”

He added that they are careful about looking for particular items that may result in finding out the cause of the fire.

The fire investigators are continuing to review video and photos while also talking to witnesses in order to get a sense of what happened Friday.

According to the Champaign Fire Department’s press release, the second and third floors collapsed into the first floor within 20 minutes of the fire department’s arrival.

It also spread to the roof of Jim Gould’s, but damage was fairly minimal, said Michael Johnson, dining room manager at Jim Gould’s.

Safety is a big issue while they go through the rubble and remaining debris. Engineers have been brought in to ensure that it is safe for investigators to continue to determine the cause, Quinlan said.

“Safety is the utmost important thing, and we can’t take chances with an unstable structure,” he said.

The fire has affected more than just the history of the city.

“There are a lot of things involved when it is a downtown fire,” Quinlan said. “It is affecting several insurances companies and businesses.”

The law offices of Dobbins, Fraker, Tennant, Joy and Perlstein, located at 215 N. Neil St., had to be moved to another location due to the extensive damage to the offices from the fire.

The Metropolitan Building was the last building to be completed on the corner of Neil and Church streets.

“It was one of four key anchor buildings in the heart of downtown Champaign,” Quinlan said. “The city had put money towards restoring it. It could possibly have been the most outstanding corner in downtown Champaign.”

One wall from the 130-year-old building still remains partially intact.

“It is too early to tell if they will be able to save that wall that is now standing,” Quinlan said. “If they can save that wall and build something comparable to what it was, then that would be the best scenario.”

Johnson said the downtown area and businesses will be affected by what the city decides to do with the space.

“It was a pretty vacant space before the fire,” he said. “So it really depends on what the city plans to do with it that will end up affecting us.”