Investigators unable to pinpoint cause of Mount Vernon Antique Center fire

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Investigators from the Fairfax County Fire Marshal’s Office were unable to determine the exact cause of the Christmas night fire that destroyed the Mount Vernon Antique Center.

The investigation ended in late February, and earlier this month investigators and fire department officials briefed business owners who used the antique center during a meeting at Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck’s office.

Investigators have a general idea of where the fire started in the building, but not an exact cause. Nothing investigators found during the course of the investigation pointed to arson, said Lt. Jeff Carney, who led a team of six investigators.

“We have no indication [of arson],” Carney said, noting that investigators did look into specific tips. “They led nowhere. No validity.”

A dog trained to locate various accelerants did not come up with any hits, and samples from various parts of the building sent away to a lab came up negative as well, Carney said.

Multiple factors made determining the exact cause difficult, Carney said. The enormous size of the blaze and the near-total destruction of the building’s interior were significant obstacles, as was a lack of witnesses.

“[Finding an exact cause] is really going to be dependent on the amount of damage and the information that we have ahead of time,” Carney said. 

The Mount Vernon Antique Center had been a part of the Richmond Highway community since 2002, but its roots go much deeper. The building was constructed in 1946, and originally used as a lumber yard and then a furniture store. It later became Thieves Market, an antique and variety market that was the predecessor to the Mount Vernon Antique Center.

More than 30 vendors operated out of the antique center at the time of the fire. The fire department estimates the total loss to be $2,326,612. 

It was a huge loss, it was a huge shame for everybody. It’s just horrible that it was 9:30 at night on Christmas Day; you didn’t have any real prospect to have anybody around to report the thing,” said Craig Baker, who owned The Eldest Geek computer repair shop inside the center. “I loved the antique center. It was such a fixture, it was such a part of the community. It was wonderful being there.”

“Tremendous fuel load”

Because the fire started sometime on Christmas Day, nobody was in the building when it started. It’s unclear when exactly the blaze began, but the size of the fire by the time firefighters were called led investigators to believe it had burned for awhile before the first 911 call. 

Not having an origin and a pinpoint cause, it’s too hard to tell how far a head start [the fire had],” Carney said. “But I think it did have a pretty big head start.”

During the meeting at Storck’s office, investigators showed a helmet camera video taken by one of the first firefighters to arrive. Those in attendance were able to see a view of the building — with flames already showing through the roof — from a fire truck coming down Richmond Highway. They also saw the building’s interior after crews were able to enter the structure, before they were ordered to evacuate.

Carney said that about two minutes after the firefighters left the building, a large portion of the roof fell where they had been standing. 

Walls of the building soon began collapsing, Carney said, starting with a wall to the rear left side of the structure that was close to the approximate location of where the fire started.

The fire department estimates that half a million gallons of water were used during the first few hours of fighting the fire, Carney said. To get the fire under control, two “ladder pipes” poured roughly 900 gallons a minute onto the building from above, while other hoses saturated it from the ground, Carney said.

But the fire’s head start, combined with the age, construction and contents of the building, made saving the structure impossible. Carney said the antique furniture and other older materials inside meant that there was “a tremendous fuel load” for the fire.

“It was just loaded. [There] was a ton of old furniture,” Carney said. “It made for a pretty large fuel package inside.”

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