NORFOLK, Va. -- Her walls once hid wartime secrets with life-or-death implications for thousands. It later became a tourist haven. Lately, the downtrodden called her home.
But the glory of the Nansemond Hotel is over -- reduced to rubble in the nightmare of a three-alarm fire.
All that remained Monday of the 52-year-old Tidewater landmark were charred timbers, scorched stucco skeletons and a still-smoldering, waist-deep pile of embers and ash -- and a search for what caused the fire early Friday morning.
The Nansemond Hotel was the only home most of the residents had,
Some residents worked at the hotel as maids, cooks, dishwashers, janitors and waitresses. It was owner John Gee's way of giving them a $3-a-day in meal credits plus rooms in exchange for a day's work.
The old hotel once served as headquarters in World War II for the Navy. Strategists met there to plan 'Operation Torch,' the invasion of North Africa in 1942. It was history's biggest invasion at the time.
Norfolk Fire Chief Tom Gardner said, 'We haven't come up with the cause yet. It's still under investigation. We've questioned a number of people, but it hasn't been all pulled together yet. We haven't found any natural cause yet.'
Debris is hampering the investigation, he said.
'There's about four feet of embers and coal still smouldering down there. A building that size, when it burns and falls in, it holds the heat in. It can last a long long time,' Gardner said.
At least one person, a 70-year-old man, was reported missing after the fire. But Gardner said the man had been seen. 'At this point, we don't believe anybody was killed. But with some unregistered people, there's always the possibility,' he said.
Norfolk imposed water restrictions more than a month ago because of a water shortage, but Gardner said the situation did not hamper firefighting efforts at the hotel.
For the 89 residents left homeless by the fire, Gardner's firefighters managed to save their lives, but little else.
Ann Nelson, of the Tidewater chapter of the American Red Cross, said all but 20 of the residents had been relocated Sunday. Those remaining were expected to be placed early this week.