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January 7, 2003 12:50 AM

Firefighters douse blaze at Beling Building

By Stephanie Massick and Kristina Gleeson, Staff writers
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Photo: Terry Herbig
Moline firefighters responded to a blaze at the Beling Building, 1100 block of 16th Street, Moline, shortly before 5 p.m. Flames were shooting out of the upper floor of the building when firefighters arrived. The fire was brought under control within the hour. No one was injured during the blaze. Cause of the fire is not yet known. The building was for sale and believed to be mostly empty.

MOLINE -- Fire ``shooting flames 7 or 8 feet'' out several top-floor windows of the Beling Building -- the former Moline High School -- caused thousands of dollars in damage Monday afternoon.

Moline firefighters were called to the building at 1001 16th St. shortly before 5 p.m. According to witnesses, flames exploded from the upper floor of the four-story, 87,000-square-foot building.

Moline Fire Department Deputy Chief Gary Johnson said late Monday that damage to the building was estimated at $50,000. He said two large rooms on the west side of the fourth floor sustained the most fire damage.

At least 17 firefighters battled the blaze for about two hours. There were no reported injuries.

Patricia Freeburg, 1520 10th Ave., Moline, lives just west of the former school. Just before 5 p.m., she and her roommates heard its windows shatter onto the concrete below. After seeing smoke and flames in the upper windows, she called 911.

``It was going fast,'' she said. ``We thought the whole building was going to go.''

``All you could see was orange,'' said Matthew Harris, 19, of Moline, who was visiting his girlfriend's house nearby. ``There were five top windows, shooting flames 7 or 8 feet.''

Mr. Harris speculated the fire was caused by teenagers who use illegal drugs in the building. ``I'm sure kids probably did it. (That) floor -- it's like the `stoner' floor.''

Although the building is vacated and the doors are locked, that doesn't keep out trespassers, Mr. Harris said. ``Some of the kids know how to get in.''

Although the blaze was under control before 7 p.m., he said, firefighters were exercising caution because of the presence of unspecified hazardous materials in metal cabinets on the top floor.

He did not offer any theories as to the fire's cause. ``It's still under investigation,'' he said.

Officials indicated electrical and natural-gas service were shut off to the building.

The brick-and-concrete building opened in 1915 and served as Moline's high school for more than 40 years. From 1956 to 1971 it was used by Black Hawk College students, before Beling Consultants bought it for an office building.

Beling eventually merged with the Raymond Professional Group, and the building went up for sale in January 2000. Raymond moved its offices to a building on 52nd Avenue, just south of SouthPark Mall, last year.

``There were some offices for rent on the first floor,'' said Roger Geiken, an engineer at Raymond. ``The building was vacated in February 2002.''

Realtor John Corelis said most of the office space had been vacated before that point, and the building was empty after Raymond moved from its offices on the top two floors.

Rock Island County's Republican Party rented office space in the building, but moved out in the spring of 2000.

Mr. Corelis said a buyer is interested in the building but could not say how the buyer would use it. ``We're working on a project,'' he said. ``Hopefully this fire isn't going to impact it too much.''

Phil Koenig, an attorney for Beling Consultants Inc., said a sale contract is pending, subject to approval of the bankruptcy court, possibly later this month. He said the closing is scheduled for June, he said.

Mr. Corelis said he was told damage was limited to an area on the west side of the building that had been the chemistry lab.

``It's a neat building. I sure hope it wasn't damaged to the point where they won't have an opportunity to rehab it,'' he said. ``They did lose a lot of the windows, and they wanted to keep the windows.''

He also speculated that kids got into the building.

``We're just going to have to button it up and protect it a little better,'' he said.

This is not the first time firefighters have been called to the building. On Nov. 6, 1996, several hours were spent searching for the source of smoke that poured into upper floors. It eventually was determined that a fire in a lower-floor office apparently had extinguished itself before firefighters arrived.

Staff writer Amy Thon contributed to this report.

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