BOTHELL, Wash. - At least 15 businesses were destroyed when a massive three-alarm fire ripped through historic downtown Bothell on Friday morning, gutting one building after another and sending huge flames billowing into the sky that could be seen for miles.
By mid-morning, firefighters were still battling the blaze as it flared up repeatedly and fire officials said it could take until Sunday to completely extinguish the last remnants of the blaze.
"It's a sad day," said Bothell Mayor Andy Rheaume. "My heart is heavy."
The blaze incinerated a retail area that was in the midst of a revitalization effort and turned it into a "war zone," Rheaume said. The old Mercantile Building, which was being converted into a five-story retail-apartment complex with a historic facade, was completely destroyed in the fire. Several other buildings sustained extensive damage.
The one positive outcome - no one was injured or killed in the conflagration. But officials said the cause of the blaze might not be know for days or weeks - and possibly never.
The blaze broke out just before 3 a.m. and spread rapidly as gusty winds fanned the flames.
"I go outside and it’s just this huge fire and I start freaking out," said witness Aubrey Thomson. "I could not take my eyes off of it."
"My mouth was... my jaw dropped. I had never seen anything that was quite that big," added witness Sharron Dimmitt.
Firefighters descended on the scene from all over the region, working desperately to prevent the blaze from taking any more structures or spreading to a nearby residential zone in the city at the northern tip of Lake Washington.
"It was just gut wrenching, this is downtown, the core of the city of Bothell and to have this happen is really upsetting," said Bothell Mayor Andy Rheaume
Evacuations were under way, several streets and highways were closed and a college campus was shut down temporarily due to power outages.
"The whole main street was going up," said one witness.
"The whole sky was just bright orange. And I live 15 blocks from here," said another witness, Lars Collins. "You could see it rising over."
As dawn broke, the extent of the damage became clear as crews continued to fight the blaze and thick, acrid smoke poured through the empty streets.
"Yeah, it’s just like kinda having the middle burn out of the city and it’s upsetting," said Rheaume. "This is a sad day for Bothell."
Firefighters contained the flames by mid-day, but Bothell Fire Chief Bob Van Horne said the collapsed wreckage of the Mercantile Building complex had created a "whole stack of lumber" that would take another 24 to 48 hours to burn out.
Several other buildings were damaged and possibly destroyed beyond repair, including Sundance Energy and the Frontier Communications, which provides local Internet service.
The Kozy Corner Cafe, a popular restaurant frequented by local residents, was also heavily damaged, along with other neighboring businesses.
"I'm hopeful its just a temporary set back," said Rheaume. "I'm hoping they can just start over again and rebuilding that building."
The Wells Fargo building sustained some damage as well as a nearby Lutheran Church, where some windows were cracked and broken by radiant heat from the blaze.
"The smoke and stuff was really really intense," said neighbor Melanie Lockhart. "I know there are differing opinions on whether development is good or bad thing. But no one wants to see something like this happen."
Van Horne said fire crews were able to stop the flames from spreading to a residential area just to the north.
Heavy smoke was an issue in surrounding neighborhoods, but gradually decreased throughout the day.
A state Department of Ecology spokesman said foam used to fight the fire had washed into the Sammamish River, and a crew was at the scene trying to determine the extent of the environmental damage.
Several roads were closed most of the day while crews monitored for flare ups.
Main Street through the downtown was partially reopened just after 5:00 p.m.
Neighbors have started a GoFundMe page to help the owners of some of the businesses that were destroyed.