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RyPN Editorials October 18, 2003
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Recalling the National Capital Trolley Museum Fire
A Personal View
Editor's Note: in this article from the newsletter of the National Capital Trolley Museum, NCTM Board member and RyPN reader Wes Paulson shares his recollections of the immediate aftermath of the recent carbarn fire and loss of 8 street railway vehicles at the Museum. We reprint it here with the permission of the author.

The phone rang just after 2 a.m. When the phone rings in the middle of the night at our house, it is usually for my wife Connie. She is a pastor and we were expecting news about a parishioner who was very ill, and so I was ready to hand the phone to her. Instead, Museum Trustee Bob Schnabel spoke quickly on the other end of the line and said the lower barn was on fire. Any number of thoughts raced through my mind as I got dressed and headed into the night. I stopped at the garage door long enough to remember to take Connie's cell phone.

As I drove east down Bonifant Road toward the Museum, I came to the first roadblock. The sky was aglow and an officer waved me through. At the second roadblock, the officer directed me to approach the Museum from New Hampshire Avenue. I gave him a description of Bob Schnabel's truck before I turned around and headed to the Museum via Layhill and Norwood Road. Approaching the Museum from the east on Bonifant Road I could see the light from the fire trucks and emergency equipment. An officer waved me through at Carona Drive and escorted me to the scene. He forewarned me that the fire was bad. It was; from where I stood I could see that the roof of the barn was gone.

Bob Schnabel arrived shortly after I did. It was at this point that the emergency personnel began to introduce themselves and explain what was going on with the efforts to contain the fire. Lt. Don McNickle introduced himself as the Public Information Officer for the Park Police (Editor's Note: NCTM is located on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a public parks agency). Early on Bob and I also met Lt. Kevin Frazier, the lead investigator for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS). Both gentlemen offered condolences. Several other key law enforcement officials and fire and rescue personnel also introduced themselves in those early hours.

After an hour or so on the scene Bob Schnabel and I decided to go home until daylight. The fire was well under control and there was not much we could do in the dark while the MCFRS personnel began to clear the scene. When I returned home there was a message from an officer on the scene. MCFRS personnel wanted to view the inside of upper car house. I returned to the Museum at about 4:30 a.m. and remained for most of the day. After a tour of the upper barn, I walked to the Museum entrance at Bonifant Road and sat on the guard rail to watch the sunrise.

The day moved quickly after sunrise. Museum President Ken Rucker arrived and Bob Schnabel returned to the scene. We shared various jobs: providing background information on the Museum, access to areas that remained locked, and escorting various officials from the police and fire departments. Pete Piringer from MCFRS joined Lt. McNickle in working with the press. Lt. Frazier began to develop his investigation. Responding to an early cell phone call, Maryland State Delegate Carol Petzold arrived at the scene and assisted by returning home to her computer to look up a home telephone number for our insurance agent in California and contact senior staff at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The cell phone came in handy to contact Museum Treasurer Charles Tirschman, who called all of the trustees, and Kirt Stanfield who later put the press release on the Museum's web page.

The media arrived at the scene with all manner of remote broadcasting equipment. Carol Petzold, Pete Piringer and Lt. McNickle offered interviews. With Carol urging forward, Ken and I drafted a press release on a laptop computer in the relative quiet of the gazebo. With the laptop perched on a stool, I met with reporters from local television stations at 1:30 p.m.

Erik Ledbetter photo.
Lower carbarn the afternoon following the fire. Erik Ledbetter photo.

Activity on site seemed to settle down after the interviews. Park Police officers posted at the gate turned away Museum members and the general public. The lower barn was taped off as a crime scene. Lt. Frazier asked more questions about the building and the Museum's history of operations. Park maintenance staff arrived and installed a temporary fence around the lower carhouse. At some point Ken Rucker, Carol Petzold and I gathered in the lobby of the visitor center. A reporter from the Washington Post interviewed us as we all sat and looked out at the remains of the lower carhouse. I was unsure what she was getting from our rambling conversation. Her finished article served as a fine chronicle of the day's events.

I left the Museum about 3:30 p.m. and returned home. Later in the evening I called Mills Dean to share the news. Mills was president of the Museum when the lower carhouse was constructed. He and others worked to build the lower carhouse and acquire most of the cars destroyed in the fire. Talking with Mills and describing the fire was in many ways like sharing the news of a death of a mutual friend.

The fire to me represents a loss of a tangible connection to the past: fan trip rides on CTCo 1053, the streamliner, in the last days of streetcar service in the city; the snowy day in the 1980s when some of us operated DCTS 07, the snow sweeper, and swept snow on the Museum's railway; working with the late Ed Frazier and others on the Vienna train and explaining to visitors about how two-car trains once carried passengers in Washington, DC; watching DCTS 0509, the workcar, swing from a crane as it was unloaded at the Museum in August 1973; and finally, all of the work that so many did to get JTCo 352 ready for service in 1969, and then restored in the late 1990s. My last ride on JTCo 352, the Johnstown car, was at Millian's church picnic on August 24, 2003.

In the introduction to his book Old Dominion Trolley, Too, Col. John E. Merriken writes: "Thus as we look with backward longing, it's a question of what one thinks is important to care about. Presumably, the technical trivia, the strictly local chronicle, and the parochial reveries evoked by such a story are of less than eternal consequence. But the importance of a local legend is a relative thing --- for much of what makes it is in the mind, the eye and the heart of the observer."