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Montpelier Foundation casts doubt on claims museum fire didn't damage artifacts

The nonprofit foundation that operates Founding Father James Madison’s Montpelier estate is casting doubt on initial reports that a fire in the museum’s archaeology office and laboratory last week did no damage to the artifacts and relics stored there.

An April 8 fire that tore through the building and seriously damaged its porch, attic and a single interior room also injured three of the firefighters on the scene. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, and the Orange County fire marshal’s office is leading an investigation into the matter.

The Montpelier Foundation, which operates the estate as a museum, has said it is assisting the fire marshal’s office and still conducting an assessment of possible damage.

Nevertheless, the Orange Volunteer Fire Company released a statement the day after the fire, saying 30 firefighters from multiple jurisdictions had worked with museum staff to safely remove the relics and artifacts from the building. "There appears to be no damage to the relics housed in the lab building," the fire company said in its official statement.

Days later, Jamel Langley, a Montpelier Foundation spokesman, said the fire company "spoke out of turn."

"At this point in time, the Montpelier Foundation has not been able to look at all the artifacts yet to know if they’ve been harmed or injured, for lack of a better word," Langley told The Daily Progress. "We just don’t know at this point in time, and it’s up to the foundation to figure that out."

Fire Chief Whit Jacobs of the Orange Volunteer Fire Company has acknowledged that perhaps the wording of the official statement was too "broad-brush," but he maintains that he and his team did everything within their power to preserve the Madison-era artifacts and relics inside the building under dangerous conditions.

Jacobs said that after firefighters arrived on the scene, they worked to contain the fire enough that Montpelier staff members and firefighting crews could enter the archaeology office and lab and begin removing items. His team was dedicated to helping staff accomplish what had become a "salvage job," he said.

"In that archaeology facility, they have display cases of numerous artifacts. None of those display cases were damaged by fire. We in fact covered over everything we could not physically remove from the building," Jacobs told The Daily Progress. "There were boxes that were on rack storage that were archaeological remains of some sort, and some of those boxes did suffer water damage, but we were told that a lot of those contents in those boxes were bagged and cataloged."

Jacobs said that while none of his crew inspected the boxes’ contents, they were assured that the items inside should be safe.

"At the time, there appeared there wasn’t anything damaged," Jacobs said. "I’m sure they’ve now had time to go through the contents. Maybe there’s a possibility there was damage."

Jacobs said his team knew going into the fire that they were working under special circumstances, that the archaeology office of a major museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation naturally houses items of priceless value.

"We worked diligently to do a very thorough — probably more than any fire we’ve ever been on — an extremely thorough overhaul to make sure there was no damage to their artifacts, because they’re irreplaceable; and we know that," Jacobs said.

But Jacobs also said that it is entirely possible that an oversight was made when the official statement was released.

"If they dispute it, maybe that’s a mistake on our part in assuming we’ve done our part to protect the contents," Jacobs said.

It would not be the only discrepancy in the original report.

That initial statement released by the Orange Volunteer Fire Company reported that there were no injuries at the scene April 8.

“Early in the incident as crews were trying to access, by ladder, fire in the attic, a partial collapse of the front porch roof caused the ladder to fall and two firefighters were checked by EMS,” the fire company said in its initial statement.

That statement reported that EMS found the firefighters to be "uninjured," but Jacobs said the next day that wasn’t true.

"We did have 3 firefighters injured on scene but were evaluated by EMS and denied transport to the hospital," he told The Daily Progress via email.

Jacobs then emphasized that everything else in the original statement remained accurate.

Montpelier staff told The Daily Progress that it was entirely unaware that any firefighter had been injured until they read it in the newspaper after Jacobs amended the fire company’s statement.

Langley, the Montpelier spokesman, said the foundation needs time to review everything it has learned since the fire started before it releases an official assessment. He would not specify which Madison-era artifacts or relics were stored inside the damaged building or which the foundation believed were most at risk.

"We really just need to find out exactly what was injured or destroyed during the fire," Langley said. "We’ll have a statement coming out."

Eola Dance, president and CEO of the Montpelier Foundation, posted a video to Facebook on Thursday thanking the Orange Volunteer Fire Company but adding that it remains unclear how much damage the fire wrought.

"We are grateful to the 30 firefighters from across Orange County, and our thoughts and prayers are with the three firefighters and their families supporting them as they recover from injuries," she said. "Currently our emergency response team is focused on triage, assessment and prevention. As you can imagine, such an emergency is devastating."

Dance said Montpelier will remain open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

"However, the area where the fire occurred is not accessible to the public," she said.


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