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Maquoketa fire destroys downtown buildings; 15 departments battle blaze
Firefighters battle an early morning blaze in Maquoketa, Iowa, that destroyed part of a city block. At least 15 area fire departments were called in to help battle the fire. (Kevin E. Schmidt/Quad-City Times)

(UPDATED) MAQUOKETA, Iowa — “It was a cold, terrible, miserable day to fight a fire.”

That’s what Mayor Tom Messerli, who is also a Maquoketa volunteer firefighter, said Saturday afternoon after 12 hours battling a downtown blaze that destroyed at least five buildings and severely damaged a sixth on Main Street. The high temperature Saturday was 3 degrees below zero.

The state fire marshal was called and spent several hours at the scene, but the cause of the blaze has not been determined.

The fire started about 2 a.m. in an upstairs apartment at Jackson County Home Furnishings, 137 S. Main. When firefighters arrived, they found flames shooting through the windows.

The temperature in Maquoketa at 2 a.m. was

5 degrees below zero, with a windchill of 20 degrees below.

Maquoketa Police Chief Brad Koranda said one person had been in the building, but got out without incident. Maquoketa police officers entered the building, but found no one as firefighters arrived.

Fire Chief Mark Beck began calling other departments for help. At the peak of the blaze, there were at least 18 fire departments from Jackson, Clinton, Scott and Jones counties. Davenport, Clinton and Eldridge sent aerial trucks.

The Mitchell Maskrey Mill is located just behind the Main Street buildings damaged by fire. Firefighters doused the mill with water, coating it with ice, to keep the fire from spreading. They did the same with the Old City Hall Gallery, located across the street.

Much of the downtown area was quickly coated with ice. Maquoketa Public Works crews had to shovel most of the sand and ice melt by hand since they couldn’t get their trucks close because of the fire hoses.

Then a second call for help was put out about 7:30 a.m. when the city water supplies got to a seriously low level. City water officials asked the department to back off the water pressure from the hydrants. The fire chief then called nearly all the departments again asking for more manpower and tanker trucks.

More than 100 fire trucks began a trail between the Maquoketa River Fifth Street boat ramp and the downtown area to haul water. Century Concrete crews hauled water in cement trucks from the quarry north of Maquoketa to the portable tanks set up in the middle of Main Street. It’s the same method firemen use when fighting a rural fire.

As of 4 p.m. the trail of trucks had lessened, but still provided water as the city’s water pressure went down again. Maquoketa residents were asked to conserve water Saturday to assist in the water pressure issue.

The fire spread quickly from building to building. Sue’s Hallmark — a historic three-story building — Breitbach’s Floor Covering, Jackson County Home Furnishings, which occupies two buildings, and the yet-to-open Pickle Barrel Sub were destroyed by the fire.

One portion of the wall of Sue’s Hallmark fell onto the nearby Main Street Plaza building to the north. Delmar firefighters barely escaped injury when the wall collapsed onto the roof. There was a 30-foot hole in the roof of the building that houses Smiles on Main, Dr. Buddy Atienza’s dentists office, Area Substance Abuse Council, Beltone and Brian Aunan, CPA.

Deputy Chief Jeff Moritz said the fire had not gotten into the Main Street Plaza, but it was severely damaged by water and the collapsing roof.

“If we can’t control it there (Main Street Plaza), we’ll lose the rest of the block,” Moritz said.

Moritz said the fire was hard on personnel and equipment. Two firefighters were taken to Jackson County Regional Health Center after slipping on the ice. A third went to the hospital with cold and exhaustion problems. All were treated and released.

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By 4 p.m., the blaze had been contained, but crews still battled fires as they cropped up in the damaged buildings.

Power was out for much of the downtown area until 9:30 a.m. KMAQ Radio’s downtown offices were without power and couldn’t broadcast until 9:30 a.m.

Doug Owen, Maquoketa Municipal Electric Utility manager, said crews were asked not to begin repairs on the lines until 3 p.m.  He said it would be several hours after that before power was restored. Many of the lines near the buildings that were destroyed will have to be replaced, Owen said.

Ice hung down from the wires across the back of the storefronts.

There are apartments above some of the stores on the east side of the street. All of those residents were evacuated as well as the residents of Hurst Hotel Apartments because power was out in that block, said Lyn Medinger, Jackson County emergency management coordinator.

Gateway Area Red Cross assisted four families and started a warming center at the Maquoketa Community Center. Maquoketa Community Schools provided buses that were first used as warming areas for firefighters.

Maquoketa City Hall, which is one block from the fire, also set up tables with food and a place for firemen to rest.

“The outpouring of support has been unbelievable,” Messerli said.

The city desk can be contacted at (563) 383-2450 or newsroom@qctimes.com.

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