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Rebuilding the Block 

Both gratitude and blame linger as life returns to a burned section of Magazine Street.

Richard O'Connor doesn't seem aware of the song on the radio as he walks around his Magazine Street apartment, partially rebuilt after a fire took everything he had. He points to what used to be his parlor, his "Irish wall," the screen porch where his 18 cats congregated. "This is where my babies played," he says, gazing at the charred ruins as The Byrds sing in the background: "To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn."

The last time he saw this apartment intact was on Aug. 30, 2002, when he awoke just before 6 a.m. His 26-year-old calico cat, Ophelia, was clawing his chest and meowing, and he smelled smoke. "I jumped out of bed and ran outside," he recalls. "When I got outside I started knocking on doors, waking people up." O'Connor tried to go back upstairs to get his cats, but firefighters who had just arrived wouldn't let him in.

"I hadn't cried in years, but I was crying then," he says, "because I knew what was happening to them."

Donald Schulz was the first fire chief to get there. "I struck a second alarm and told them to prepare for additional alarms before I even got out of the car," he says. "I've been on the fire department for 31 years. I knew."

The Second District chief was aware that those 200-year-old row buildings on Magazine Street all shared an attic, and if the fire reached it "we had problems." The fire, which began on the second floor, quickly spread to the attic.

Firefighters had several factors working against them, he says. "There was heat; it was in August. The common attic was a problem. Then I had three firefighters that got trapped and we had to rescue them." Schulz also worried that The Cat Practice, a veterinary clinic at 1809 Magazine St., might have explosive oxygen tanks inside.

The fire escalated to an eight-alarm blaze. Firefighters cut a trench in the roof where the fire started at 1815 Magazine St., to let smoke and gases escape. Crews moved through The Cat Practice and knocked a hole in the wall of Cat and Dog Boarding and Grooming at 1823 Magazine St. to rescue dozens of animals trapped inside.

The "trench cut" helped control the fire as it spread from building to building, jumping over firewalls that stopped short of the attic ceiling. Firefighters got their first break when they saw the firewall in the building that housed Jim Russell Rare Records extended up to the roof. "That stopped the fire from spreading all the way to the end of the block," Schulz says. It also prevented flames from reaching the combustible vinyl record collection inside.

Ray Ziegler got three phone calls that morning. One was from the alarm company that monitored his rental property at 1813 Magazine St., telling him the smoke alarm had gone off. The second also came from that company, reporting his fire sensors had also activated -- "that means something's burning." The third was from his contractor, who was completing an extensive renovation of the three-story structure. "He said, 'Your building's on the news.'"

Ziegler, who lives on the West Bank, sped onto the Crescent City Connection where he could see flames and smoke pouring into the sky from the lower Garden District. When he arrived, he could only stand and watch the inferno. "I had just collected the rents," he says. "The new tenants were just starting to move in."

The building housed two apartments and the offices for Total Community Action, all destroyed. "I was underinsured," Ziegler says. "We were only insured for what the building was worth before the renovation. We lost all the money we put into the renovation, and all the brand-new appliances we just installed. I'm still paying the credit-card debt on those appliances."

This second renovation is nearly complete. Ziegler's building was designated a historic property, and a federal grant helped him restore it. All that survived inside was an original molded ceiling.

"It's a big thing for different businesses to share firewalls," Ziegler says. "When you rebuild a building like that, everyone has to work together. It's not like a house that burns down and you rebuild it. You've really got to like the person on the other side."

The fire was determined to be an act of arson. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which is handling the investigation, is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the arsonist.

ATF Special Agent Austin Banks says tipsters should call the ATF's 24-hour hotline, 888-ATF FIRE, and can remain anonymous. He would not discuss whether there are any suspects, though some affected by the fire believe it was started by a disgruntled ex-employee from one of the businesses.

The building where the fire started once housed Griffin Stained Glass Studio. It stands charred and silent in contrast to the newly restored properties that flank it. This property, like others on the block, was looted -- brass fixtures, mantels, antique balcony railings, all stolen. "People just kept coming in and cleaning us out," Ziegler says.

The building's former owner, James Williams, sold it in March for $85,000 to Nuria Rowley. She says she is deciding between two options for the property, but says it's too early to give specifics. Williams, a retired professor who created the stained-glass works he sold, could not be reached.

The fire caused more than $3 million in property damage. Five of the 100-plus firefighters were treated, and more than 50 animals perished. There was no loss of human life, though, and more than 70 animals were saved.

After Richard O'Connor was restrained from going in after his cats, he says, he sat outside with Williams, who had also been sleeping in an upstairs apartment. O'Connor says they watched as firefighters opened the nearest hydrant, but nothing happened.

"I sat there with Jim Williams and we were counting the minutes. It was 45 minutes before the water came on. Jim kept looking at his watch: 'Where's the water? Where's the water?' Everyone was standing around waiting for water." Firefighters linked hoses that stretched to hydrants down the street and eventually got water, he says.

"The hydrant on the corner was completely off, period," Anne Bell says. "It wouldn't have been so catastrophic had they had water." Bell and O'Connor plan to sue the Sewerage and Water Board, saying they have several witnesses to bolster their case. Though the one-year anniversary of the fire passed on Aug. 30 -- and with it, the statute of limitations for lawsuits relating to the blaze -- Bell says they got a 90-day extension.

O'Connor had retained a lawyer much earlier, but several months into the process the attorney quit. "He told me I'd be dead before I saw any money."

Others interviewed for this story say they'd heard about water problems but didn't see them firsthand. Schulz, the fire chief, says that "as far as I know we had no water problems. It wasn't reported to me. We were in good shape with water."

A spokesman for the Sewerage and Water Board says hydrants sometimes have low pressure for various reasons, but that there are no records of anything unusual occurring with the water flow that morning.

Bell was among the first to reopen in the burned block. The building that once housed Cat and Dog is now the Southern Animal Foundation/Frances McDonogh Memorial Clinic. It's a cheerful nonprofit veterinary hospital and adoption center with high-tech equipment and separate waiting rooms for cats and dogs. Adoptable cats, many of whom survived the fire, frolic in back rooms.

The facility rescues homeless animals and offers low-cost spays, neuters and other services. Elizabeth Bell, Anne's daughter, says it's a tribute to the pets who died. "We owed it to the animals who didn't survive."

On the wall is a framed certificate from the North Shore Animal League of New York, recognizing Ophelia as a feline hero. O'Connor has an identical certificate. He is not looking forward to the clinic's grand opening party planned for Oct. 4. He doesn't want people approaching him to talk about the fire and all he lost.

"You don't know what it feels like -- and I hope you never do -- what it is to stand across the street and know your babies are dying wondering, 'Where is our daddy? Why isn't he coming to save us?'" he says. "At times I wish I'd gone back in there. Even if it cost me my life."

O'Connor had no insurance, and everything he'd accumulated in 73 years was gone: new and antique furniture; inherited crystal and silver; art; Irish artifacts that collectors begged him to sell. Gone, too, was the home he shared with 18 cats. "I'm fastidious," he says. "You'd never know all those cats lived there.

"I live alone and I love cats, and when I came home I had a family. It was the only family I had. My apartment was geared toward the comfort of my cats." That included a porch with a special screen durable enough for cats to climb on; food and water in white china bowls in each room; baskets everywhere with blankets in them.

O'Connor eventually moved into an apartment Uptown, where he's living until his home is renovated. He became one of the fire's most visible victims, and the outpouring was huge: donated clothes, china, linens; furniture provided by Hurwitz-Mintz and Halpern's. All he has left are his cats' remains -- they died of smoke inhalation, and were cremated -- and their photos, which had been protected in a waterlogged desk.

O'Connor keeps the cats' ashes in an urn and has adopted nine more. One, a calico, is named Ophelia II.

An unusual amount of buildings affected by the fire contained animals. Two businesses were animal-related and many of the property owners were pet-friendly landlords, a rarity in New Orleans. Several residents in the upstairs apartments had pets -- not just one or two, but several.

Though the animal death toll is sobering, more animals lived than died, Schulz points out. "My hat's off to those firefighters, because of the number of animals involved," the chief says -- a sentiment echoed by everyone involved. "They had cats, dogs all over the sidewalk. Some that weren't doing so well, they were giving them oxygen to try to revive them. There were a few on the verge of dying that they brought back," he says.

Dr. Mark Cousins, the veterinarian who owns The Cat Practice, hates that some people refer to the tragedy as the "Cat Practice fire." "That's because most of the animals who died were from here," he says. "But the fire didn't start in our building."

Like the others, he and his staff could do nothing but watch. "All I could think about were the animals," he says -- including his employee Amanda Molero's pets, trapped in her apartment above the clinic.

Just a few cats in his clinic survived. That night, Cousins was collaborating with the owner of a building across the street, drawing plans to temporarily move his practice there. "I fall on my knees every night and thank God we have that space," he says.

Cousins' staff initially maintained the clinic's business end in his living room while he treated patients at Freret Veterinary Hospital, which loaned its space and equipment. "The outpouring I had from my professional colleagues has been amazing," he says.

"So many segments of the New Orleans community came together. The empathy and love and support, that's what got us through," Cousins says, recalling the flowers and tributes that people propped on the fence by the clinic. The hardest part was visiting clients who had lost pets.

In the weeks after the fire, the Louisiana SPCA provided tireless help, he says, as did Historic Restoration Inc. The real estate development company helped Cousins quickly secure a contract to relocate across the street. It also moved Molero and her husband into a furnished apartment in the American Can Company building for two months, rent-free. "It would have been a tough row to hoe without them," Cousins says.

Across the street, new tile floors and support beams signal the renewal of The Cat Practice, a building that will include fire protections that surpass the city code. Cousins is debating whether to include a memorial in the renovated clinic. "I don't want that tragedy and that loss to be a focus of what we're about," he says.

"The memory of the cats that were lost and the people's sadness will always be with us, but I don't want people to come in here thinking about the fire," he says. "This is a place of healing. We have to move on."

click to enlarge Richard O'Connor - DONN YOUNG


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