UPDATE: Fire at river museum 'could have been much worse'

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Posted: Saturday, December 14, 2013 1:00 pm

A small fire this morning damaged one of the National Mississippi River Center Museum & Aquarium’s buildings, but officials said it could have been much worse.

Museum officials were notified of the fire in the Mississippi River Center at about 2:30 a.m., said John Sutter, the river museum’s marketing director. He said fire officials suspect a heating pad used in the tortoise enclosure malfunctioned, sparking a blaze that then climbed up a nearby wall.

But no injuries were reported. All six tortoises in the enclosure at the time of the fire were checked out by veterinarians, who do not believe the animals were harmed in any way, Sutter said. Other animals in the building were examined as well, he noted.

In addition, there is no major structural damage to the building, he said. The facility’s sprinkler system put out the blaze before firefighters arrived.

“It’s certainly not something we wanted to happen, but it could have been much worse,” he said.

Dubuque Assistant Fire Chief Rick Steines said it appears the fire started in a bed of mulch in the tortoise enclosure, and when it spread to a nearby curtain, the sprinkler system activated.

The building suffered smoke and water damage, prompting its closure until further notice so that crews can clean it up, Sutter said. He did not have a timetable for how long that might take, nor were damage estimates available Saturday.

“I think the biggest part of the cleanup is going to be the water damage from the sprinkler system,” Sutter said.

Water from the sprinkler system soaked carpets and damaged flooring, drywall and gift shop merchandise — things that all need to be replaced, Sutter said.

The smell of smoke still lingered in the building this afternoon as initial clean-up efforts were underway. Gift shop manager Elizabeth Pape was inspecting damaged inventory, while others worked to mop floors and assess damage.

While the Mississippi River Center will be closed until cleanup is completed, the museum’s National River Center and outdoor exhibits still are open.

And despite the damage, the fire showed the importance and effectiveness of sprinkler systems.

“It could have been quite a loss otherwise,” Steines said.

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