Around 9 a.m. Friday, firefighters were still on the scene of a fire that broke out after midnight and devastated the historic Royal Dane Mall.
After about four hours battling the blaze, Fire Services Director Darryl George said it was under control, but a lot of work – including salvaging and assessments – was still being done well past 10 a.m.
While many on social media have posted about a malfunctioning air conditioning unit in one of the buildings, George said the official cause is still being determined. The fire was large, he said, requiring the help of almost 20 on-duty firefighters from three different companies, along with aerial backup and off-duty personnel.
“We haven’t gotten close to some parts of the building, so the cause is still being determined,” George said. “Right now, we are in the mop-up stage and focusing on doing a lot of overhaul and salvaging.”
According to what’s been posted online by employees working within the mall, it appears that the middle building was most affected. It was difficult to see inside Friday, as the passageways were blocked off and flooded with water.
“It’s truly unfortunate. This is just another blow to our downtown commerce and historical area,” Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said from the scene Friday morning. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out how many businesses were affected and will be getting assistance for those involved, both the businesses owners and their employees.”
The Labor Department’s response team will also be deployed, the governor said.
Friday’s extensive fire was the latest event in a century-old history of devastation on St. Thomas. A bronze plaque found on a wall inside the mall complex tells the story of its life as the town center in the 19th century.
Historians on St. Thomas and in Denmark point to four fires that brought extensive damage to Charlotte Amalie at the time. Much of the damage, they said, was caused by the close proximity of buildings to one another and the narrow passages that made up the town’s streets. Major fires took place in 1804, 1806 and 1826.
One fire – which broke out on New Year’s Eve in 1831 – burned almost all town structures in Charlotte Amalie overnight. Among the historic structures lost to the 19th century fires were the Catholic cathedral, the Jewish synagogue, Frederick Lutheran Church and the Dutch Reform Church.
“And finally a major fire in 1832 resulted in the virtual disappearance of the original architecture – apart from the easternmost part of the town and Fort Christian,” according to a narrative titled, “The West Indian Heritage,” with information contributed by Danish scholar Ole Svenson and Virgin Islands historian Edith DeJongh Woods.
Svenson and Woods, among others, said because there was no plan drawn up for the town of Charlotte Amalie, European settlers built according to the town’s topography. Densely placed building and warehouses, separated by narrow thoroughfares, was the practice of the day. That density and the construction of wooden roofs made it possible for fires to quickly spread from building to building.
Judi Shimel also contributed to this story.