After Younkers fire, questions remain

Mar 31, 2014

With street closures blocking off traffic in the heart of downtown Des Moines, workers from offices near the former Younkers building took to the skywalks to view the damage. Lori Jones says her earliest memory of the building was shopping for school supplies in the 60's.

"Younkers has been a fixture that whole time," Jones said. "It brings tears to my eyes."

Steel and glass debris remain in the streets surrounding the 115-year-old former Younkers building, which burned and partially collapsed early Saturday morning. A Madison, Wisc. based developer, Alexander & Co., was in the middle of a $35 million project to turn it into a 120-unit apartment complex. 

Roads remain closed in downtown Des Moines, as crews continue to clean up debris from the fire. Assistant City Manager Matt Anderson says even after the cleanup, roads may not reopen immediately.

"There’s a lot of glass damage to the windows at EMC and the Hub tower, we can’t open those streets up if there’s a fear of glass falling," Anderson said. He added that Alexander & Co. will be responsible for covering the cost of cleanup.

Construction was being carried out by the Hansen Company, whose leaders say they exceeded all fire code regulations for the construction site. Vice President Tony Garcia says all work that may have produced sparks on the site ended by 2:30 Friday afternoon—eleven hours before the blaze was first reported.

"We walked through at 3:30, we walked again at 5:30, at which time all workers were done for the day, at which time the building was secured, all the doors were locked," Garcia said. 

Hansen said fire code requires a contractor to monitor the site only a half hour after ‘hot work’ is completed. A frame inspection for their Building Permit conducted that day was listed as "Does Not Meet Standards," but Garcia says the corrections required to meet them were extremely minor. 

A sprinkler system was not operational in the building at the time of the fire, but firefighters were able to use a stand pipe system to supply water.

Project Developer David Vos, of Alexander & Co., says  their insurance agent said they were likely covered for the damage under their policy, although he’s unable to say at this point whether they'll be able to salvage the project.

"We've never had a loss like this. We've had losses in the 2 million dollar range, but nothing of this magnitude and scope," Vos said. 

A team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has arrived to investigate the cause of the fire. They are requesting witnesses with video footage of the blaze to send it in or call their tip line, 1-800-ATF-FIRE.