PERU, Ill. - A fire at a massive former clock factory that police say was deliberately set provided an eerie backdrop for a northern Illinois city’s New Year’s celebrations, and despite the efforts of firefighters from throughout the area, the city landmark was destroyed.
The blaze at the former Westclox Co. clock complex, which covers a two-by-four-block span of downtown Peru, began around the time people were counting down the last seconds of 2011, said Gary Eccles, a Fire Department engineer. By 11 a.m. yesterday, the fire was burning itself out but had destroyed the building and caused it to cave in, he said.
Karen Torri, a local resident, told the News Tribune of LaSalle that she was at party and was startled when she looked out the window. “Just as we were kissing, I looked out the window and saw the fireworks, but it wasn’t fireworks; it was fire engines,’’ she said.
The only reported injury from the blaze was to a firefighter who was rushed to a hospital for emergency knee surgery, Eccles said.
Police Chief Doug Bernabei said at a news conference that two teenage boys, a 15-year-old from Peru and a 17-year-old from La Salle, were charged with aggravated arson because of the injury that resulted. The older teen, who’s being charged as an adult, appeared in court yesterday and a judge set his bond at $250,000.
State’s Attorney Brian Towne of LaSalle County said the teens entered the building, poured gas from a can they found there onto a boat stored inside, set it on fire, and then left, the newspaper reported. Towne said a tip that an anonymous caller gave Peru police led officers to the suspects.
The fire, which caused propane tanks to explode, prompted a mandatory evacuation of homes near the complex.
But Eccles said that by 11 a.m., nearly everyone was allowed to return home. Those who weren’t were being kept out because the smoke from the fire was blowing directly at their homes.
Dana Slawter, who recently moved to Peru from Philadelphia, said she had just returned home from a party when she was told to leave. She said she had begun learning the factory’s history and that it would be sad if it went up in smoke.
“It’s upsetting,’’ said Slawter.
The building, a landmark in the city that housed Westclox Co.’s clock and watch-making operations decades ago, houses several small businesses, including a salon, a photo business, a lab, and others.
Westclox built 44 structures at the complex from 1910 until 1956, then closed in 1980. A group of investors bought the building and sold it to developers in 2006, who said they planned to convert it into a retail and convention center while maintaining its history integrity.
The National Park Service in 2007 deemed the building eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places “because of its significant contributions to the social and economic development of Peru and the nation.’’