A fire on Canal Street in New Orleans that broke out early Wednesday morning was set by a homeless man trying to keep warm. The suspect, 25-year-old Darren Denley, was arrested and being held on municipal charges of setting fires and crossing police lines.
According to officials, Denley started a small fire in an alcove of a business near Canal Street in order to protect himself from the cold overnight temperature. At some point, the fire got inside the building and continued to burn for at least two hours before anyone noticed.
After the fire caused a window to break, an employee of another nearby business saw the blaze and called emergency services. Fire officials say the building was not equipped with any fire alarms or suppression equipment.
Local TV station WDSU reports that New Orleans Fire Department arrived on the scene around 3:20 a.m.
Additional crews were called in to help as the fire began to spread. At least 30 trucks and 90 firefighters fought the Canal Street fire for more than nine hours before being able to contain and extinguish the blaze.
Later in the day, NOFD Superintendent Tim McConnell confirmed four businesses had been damaged before the blaze was put out. During the press conference, he indicated that the situation could have been much worse and implied that investigators already knew how the fire was lit.
“If there had been people occupying those upper floors when this fire broke out, we could have had a much, much worse situation. We’re pretty sure at this point, but we want to let the investigators dot their i’s, cross their t’s and release the correct information.”
Hours later, officials confirmed Denley’s arrest.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is just days away, and many Canal Street businesses rely on the extra traffic to survive.
“During Mardi Gras it’s the busiest time for us,” said Hafeeth Jabbar, who opened a Reebok store on the block in 2006. “To get a phone call like that right before the holiday you wait all year for it, it kinda hurts.”
Jabbar had to close the store due to significant water and smoke damage and does not know when the business will reopen.
In additional to tremendous structural damage, the 6-alarm fire caused a virtual standstill of car and streetcar traffic on Canal Street for much of the day. The river-bound lanes next to the devastated building will stay closed until fire officials deem it safe to reopen them.
During the upcoming Mardi Gras parades, the public will not be able to enter the surrounding area. The director of New Orleans Safety and Permits Department, Jared Munster, says the city is considering re-routing the parades should any new safety issues be discovered.
Some of the biggest Mardi Gras parades, including Zulu and Endymion, pass through Canal Street. Several business owners have already been notified that the parade routes may get pushed across the street to keep revelers and participants safe.
Butch Browning, Louisiana’s Chief Fire Marshall, is working with the city to decide the best plan to re-route, if needed.
“That’s being talked about right now. Probably by the end of the day, the New Orleans officials working with all the agencies will decide what needs to be done, either to make that building safe or to maintain a safe distance (from parade-goers). I see no problem in getting that issue resolved before Mardi Gras.”
With the amount of damage sustained by the four-story building, fire officials worry that the facade could collapse. Munster says the city is going to make sure to maintain public safety, while doing everything possible to not adversely affect Mardi Gras celebrations.
The fire on Canal Street is under investigation by the NOFD, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. One firefighter received a slight burn while fighting the blaze and is receiving treatment for the injury.
[Photo by AP Photo/Gerald Herbert]