Historic City News reported yesterday on some apparent misinterpretations of news coverage in the early morning fire that virtually destroyed the Clark-Worley House; most notably what the City of St. Augustine Fire Marshal, John Rayno, says might give a false impression to readers that he wasn’t interested in the cause of the fire and that he was refusing to investigate.
“I was able to determine the cause of the fire almost immediately,” Rayno told Historic City News. “I found evidence of transients occupying the second level of the building and, in the southwest corner of that level, I determined the location where the fire began.” Rayno went on to say that he discovered evidence of burned candles that were consistent with the cause of the fire and that he is satisfied that his investigation is complete.
In an article that was published Tuesday in The St. Augustine Record, a senior reporter wrote, “Rayno said the cause of the fire would not be investigated.”
I supposed it was time to do a little investigating on my own. I rounded up Fred and the Nikon and we headed down to the Clark-Worley House at the corner of King Street and Hartshorn Street.
We found several transients in the area and spoke to a few of them to learn what, if anything, they knew about the Monday morning fire. Before we left, we spoke to Charlie, Buck, Harry, Manny and T.J. — some were more forthcoming than others.
We found Charlie near the fence at the back of the Clark-Worley House; although he says that he doesn’t know how much longer he is going to be here.
Charlie told me that he was asleep shortly after 3:00 Monday morning when he was awaken by all of the commotion.
Charlie described the scene pretty well; however, he denied that he was actually staying in the house.
Charlie admitted to me that he did see “a couple of people” coming out of the house before he heard the sirens and saw the fire trucks.
Charlie didn’t recognize them or know their names. “I keep to myself.”
We found Buck near the railroad tracks directly behind the boarded-up Foodway store.
Buck said that he has been living in the area, close to the San Sebastian Bridge, since Christmas of 2008.
Buck says that he has seen people going into the Clark-Worley House, during the day and at night, ever since he came to St. Augustine.
Buck told me that the police “kinda’ look the other way” when they pass the home that once was occupied by wealthy St. Augustine families — and now is just a charred shell.
Harry told me that he has been “riding the rails” since he lost his job in North Carolina last year. I suppose it is ironic that the Clark-Worley House would become his “temporary home” in light of the fact that it was once the home of railroad man Francis Melvin Clark; superintendent and a 40 year employee of the St. Johns Railroad and Florida East Coast Railway.
“Some nights I would stay there for an hour or two,” Harry said. “I stay at the (Methodist) church or the (St. Francis) shelter some nights, too.” I asked him if he stayed there Sunday night and he said “no”. Harry did remember the fire, though. He said that it seemed to “flash up” quickly and that in no time at all, fire seemed to be coming out of the roof, the windows and the third story tower on the front of the house.
I asked Harry if he ever saw candles burning in the windows, or, on those nights when he admitted being in the house; and he confirmed that he had. When asked if people were cooking inside or using fire inside the building, Harry responded that he never saw fire “except to light-up”.
Manny and T. J. have been staying in a camp in the woods near the railroad tracks in North City. They come to town “to get something to eat”, Manny said. “I haven’t seen anybody hanging around the house,” Manny told me, but T. J. grunted. “There’s usually somebody around that has a drink, if you want one,” T. J. said. “I wouldn’t want to spend the night in that place, though.”
Manny seemed to be concerned, for a minute or two, that he was going to get into trouble for being there. I asked him, “Do you think somebody set the place on fire intentionally?” Manny didn’t want to answer the question directly, but, he did say that if someone was going to burn the place down on purpose, it wouldn’t be anybody that wanted to stay there.
That struck me as an odd answer, and after we left, I asked a couple of folks that I know in the insurance business if they thought there might have been some “ulterior motive” to the fire. Both men, who I have the most respect for and each have years of property insurance experience, told me the same thing — not very likely. “First of all,” one of my friends told me, “it would be nearly impossible to find an insurance company that would write the policy.” The other told me that none of his companies will write un-occupied dwellings and it is rare to find one that will insure a hundred year-old building; occupied or not.
A noted local historian, David Nolan, was quoted in the press as saying, “This was too predictable and sad.” I tend to agree, however, despite attention called to the Clark-Worley House by Nolan and local groups like Citizens for the Preservation of St. Augustine, nobody was willing to come forward and adopt the building. Another local historian told me that, at this point, the structure was probably in too poor of a condition to move. He was aware of Broudy’s offer for anyone to take the house.
I also tend to believe Fire Marshal and Assistant Fire Chief John Rayno when he told me that he, in fact, did make the required investigation as to the cause of the fire that now only expedites the demolition of the Clark-Worley House … regardless of what you read in the newspaper.
Photo credit: © 2010 Historic City News staff photograph