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Early this morning, a three-alarm fire gutted the South Hall of the Eastern Market building on Capitol Hill. The fire is believed to have started in a dumpster behind the building.

Capitol Hill resident Makan Delrahim was circling the block in search of a parking spot when on his second trip through the alley behind the Eastern Market building he noticed flames shooting out of a blue dumpster near C Street SE.

“I guess by some fortunate accident I said, ‘I’m gonna go down the alley to get back on C Street,’ and then I noticed the trash bin,” Delrahim said. “At first I didn’t think it was that big a deal. Then as I got closer I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is not looking good.”

Delrahim called 911 at 12:55 a.m.

Fire engines arrived at 12:58 a.m., eventually swelling to a force of over 160 firefighters and 70 pieces of equipment, said fire department spokesperson Alan Etter. Minutes after the first blaze, a second fire—-which Etter said appears to be a coincidence—-ignited in a dumpster in an alley behind the Pour House bar on the 300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Firefighters put it out in minutes.

But Eastern Market burned for hours. The smell of burning wood dominated a three-block radius of the building, as huge plumes of smoke poured into the night air. Police used flares to block off all surrounding streets. People poured out of their houses to watch the destruction.

At 1:30 a.m., about 40 neighbors in pajamas huddled across the street with their arms folded and mouths open, staring at the flames popping out of the South Hall roof. A young couple’s dog whimpered.

Jaime Capella was in his house on C Street SE when he said he heard a series of “boom boom” noises, followed by the wailing of fire engines. He brought his video camera to the scene.

“It was calm and then it was spreading. There were a lot of firemen inside,” Capella said. “It’s a shame.”

Firefighters were initially combating the flames from inside, but then evacuated the building for fear of roof collapse.

Police officers ask residents to move away, cordoning off areas of sidewalk with police tape. But people keep creeping closer to take pictures and watch the destruction of the neighborhood landmark, which has operated continuously since 1873. Pockets of people formed at the mouths of alleys across 7th Street SE.

A few minutes after 2 a.m., high-pressure streams from two water cannons sent pieces of the roof flying into the air, prompting a police officer to ask forcefully for people to get back.

Susan Jacobs, a teacher at the market’s pottery studio, hurriedly walked from group to group, distraught. It was clear she wouldn’t be going to teaching this week.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells arrived at about 2:15, saying he’d been awakened by a call from 1st District police Commander Diane Groomes 20 minutes prior—-“She thinks that we’ve lost the whole building,” he said. [It later became clear that this was not true; the north end of the building was not gravely damaged.]

Squinting into a couple TV cameras, the councilmember said, “People are gonna be incredibly sad when they wake up tomorrow and find that Eastern Market is lost.”

Photograph by Arthur Delaney