Small fire, big scare at Van Andel Museum Center

Friday, July 18, 2008By John Agar

The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS — A rooftop fire Thursday at the Van Andel Museum Center created a spectacle downtown, with an aerial truck and fire rigs surrounding the museum, but caused little damage to the structure and none to the exhibits.
About 300 people — young summer campers, visitors, staff — evacuated when alarms sounded just before 1:30 p.m. The departure was orderly, and some children stayed cool by going into the nearby Days Hotel.
Museum officials believe a contractor, replacing the 15-year-old roof, touched off the fire with a torch. The initial fire was put out. 

Acting Grand Rapids Fire Battalion Chief Tim Szotko said firefighters initially were told the fire was out, but they found fire inside the roof. Once the blaze was knocked down, firefighters searched the roof and walls to see if it had spread.
Museum spokeswoman Rebecca Westphal said many exhibits inside — everything from mourning rings given to President George Washington’s pall bearers to the whale skeleton — are “irreplaceable.”
To ensure no danger remained, firefighters planned to stay overnight at the museum. A private gathering was scheduled there later Thursday. 

Fire officials said they also were mindful of the heat. 

“This is the kind of stuff you’ve got to be careful in,” Deputy Chief Jeff VanDellen noted. “Anytime the weather gets to the extremes, you pay attention to the amount of time you have them working,” he said of fire crews.

— Press staff writer Pat Shellenbarger contributed to this story.

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