On September 3, downtown Gulfport woke to the sight of fire beginning to engulf the porch of the city’s history museum. Eventually, the flames lashing the wood on the building subsided and revealed a charred front porch plus walls punctured by Gulfport, St. Petersburg and South Pasadena firefighters who responded to a call that came in at 7:13 a.m.
Gulfport Fire Lieutenant Eric Fuchs called “knockdown” on the fire — meaning firefighters had extinguished, or “knocked down” the bulk of the flames — by 7:22 a.m., less than 10 minutes after GFD received the call. Once firefighters arrived on scene, assessed the fire, connected their hoses to water and charged the hoses, Marenkovic said, it took less than a minute to put out the blaze.
NEWS + VIEWS
Gulfport's history museum damaged in Monday morning fire
As community members and local media gathered to survey the damage, Gulfport police shared that a suspect had been detained. According to a statement, Gulfport Detective Hanh Pham arrested well-known local David Knoll, 56, after questioning him. Knoll, according to Detective Pham, was arrested “for arson, based on the evidence, witnesses and an interview with him.”
On September 4, Gulfport Fire Chief Jim Marenkovic told Creative Loafing that the fire is being investigated as arson, and that police have charged Knoll with second-degree arson; as of Thursday afternoon, he remained at the Pinellas County jail on $15,000 bond.
Early damage reports from the museum suggest the fire did the bulk of the structural damage to the front porch, which insurance adjustors told the city was a total loss. The building, one of a handful on Gulfport’s Historic Register, has served the town as the First Methodist Church, Red Cross headquarters, Coast Guard Auxiliary and, since the late 1980s, as the town’s history museum, run by the Gulfport Historical Society. Paper and photo archives — including original charts, street maps, tax rolls, utility records that don’t exist anywhere else and old Gulfport newspapers that date back to the mid-19th century — were spared, but there is smoke and soot damage inside of the museum. Chief Marenkovic estimated the damage at $25,000 and cautioned that was only a preliminary estimate; the insurance adjustor put the damage much higher, comparing it to smaller buildings that had cost as much as $60,000 to set right.
“That’s some old wood, and an old building and you never know what you’re gonna run across,” Marenkovic said. While the fire pales in comparison when held against the one that destroyed more than 20 million items at Brazil’s National Museum over the Labor Day weekend, the historical society said that it was still reeling over what happened.
“I’m well aware how close we came today to losing every scrap of our town’s history. And that sickens me,” Cathy Salustri, president of the town’s historical society (and CL's arts & entertainment editor) wrote in the hours after the fire.
“Nevertheless, no one lost their lives today. No one was harmed. The building can be saved; few artifacts were lost.”
The historical society has pondered the idea of creating a digital archive of its paper artifacts, but the project has been cost prohibitive. According to an email sent to the society’s mailing list, insurance money will replace the porch, and after dodging two bullets in the last year (Hurricane Irma and now this fire) the organization is no longer leaning on its good luck. Donations are being collected via the society’s Square page, and since the organization is tax exempt as described in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, any contribution is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.
“The third time, as they say, is the charm. That’s why we’re asking you to donate in case we aren’t lucky one more time,” the email said. Initial estimates to digitize the papers are between $20,000 and $30,000.
“We don’t care if [the donation is] $20,000 or 20 cents,” the email added. “Every penny helps.”
Knoll, for his part, was waiting to hear any news about his future on Wednesday morning. A sentence for second degree arson carries up to 15 years in prison. Results of any arraignment were not available at press time, but CL did learn that his bail had been knocked down to $15,000 after we sent the story to press.
Salustri attempted to temper online reactions to the arrest of Knoll, whose Facebook page includes a long, winding and at times incoherent post detailing some of the observations, experiences and thoughts he’s had since his partner, Mary Beth Houlston, died of cancer.
“Tonight in a jail cell is a sick man, unable to get the help he needs to make his head right. He’s likely petrified, paranoid and alone — and he probably doesn’t understand any of what’s happened,” she wrote. “As sick as I am over what we almost lost today at the museum, I’m sicker still over what this man’s head must be like. I’m ill over what his terrors, his reality, must be.”
As she asked for help on behalf of the museum, she also pointed out the fact that Knoll likely needs assistance, too.
“Gulfport has a history of helping those who cannot help themselves. And perhaps it’s easier to think of those who need help as poor people who need money, or people who need food,” she wrote. “Sometimes people need help that’s harder to give.”
Wednesday night, the Gulfport Historical Society's board of directors, at an emergency meeting, voted unanimously to ask the judge in Knoll's case to ask for assistance for Knoll rather than punitive damages.
"Our community is not made better by letting Mr. Knoll sit in prison; our community is made better by trying to help him get healthy. Mental illness isn't an easy or pretty battle, and he's not going to get better without substantial help he's unable to get on his own," Salustri told CL, adding, "that's why most of us live in Gulfport — we have each other's backs."