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Fire breaks out in a Cheney office

The blaze forces the evacuation of an 1888 building next to the White House. An ornate floor is damaged.

December 20, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A fire in an electrical closet near Vice President Dick Cheney's ceremonial office forced the evacuation Wednesday of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House -- and sparked Internet chatter speculating on nefarious activities in the vice presidential suite.

The vice president was in the White House West Wing when the fire broke out about 9:15 a.m., White House officials said.

The fire was contained to the closet, but the elaborate floor of mahogany, white maple and cherry in the vice president's office was under water, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said. Thick black smoke "fairly filled" the second through fifth floors, she said. It billowed from an open doorway and cast a pall across the White House's north lawn.

Perino was conducting a briefing for reporters, taking questions about the CIA's destruction of videotaped interrogations, when firetrucks arrived next door. Smoke was pouring through a corridor of the Eisenhower building, and flames on the second floor could be seen briefly from the White House grounds.

Almost as quickly, the fire took on a political cast.

The website Democratic Underground lit up with comments and questions from readers: "Too many documents to shred," nradisic posted at 9:48 a.m. "What records are being 'cleaned up?' " asked Botany, two minutes later. "What all is going up in smoke?" asked gratuitous, at 9:53 a.m.

On the Huffington Post website, humorist Andy Borowitz had his own take: "The White House, one of the most historic structures in the nation's capital, burnt to the ground today after Vice President Dick Cheney attempted to incinerate a cache of CIA interrogation tapes in his office."

Casting its own skepticism on suggestions from the political left that the blaze was the equivalent of the 1933 Reichstag fire, which Adolf Hitler used to extend Nazi control in Germany, Little Green Footballs, a conservative website, reported: "There was a fire in Dick Cheney's office this morning, and as usual the leftist blogosphere is brimming over with lunatic ranting."

Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, said she was unaware of any documents being destroyed in the fire. Nor, she said, was any historic artwork lost.

The building, a classic example of French Second Empire style featuring granite pillars and tiers of balconies suggesting a wedding cake, has been undergoing renovations for several years. Sprinklers are being installed, but the work had not reached the area where the vice president's office is situated, Lawrimore said.

The structure was built between 1871 and 1888 and originally housed the Departments of State, War and the Navy. Until Walter F. Mondale took an office in the West Wing near the Oval Office, it also housed the vice president's working office.

The desk in the office, set among other antiques, was first used by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, and by Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower.

As the fire was being extinguished, water cascaded over the granite facade and down the stone steps, beneath a story-tall Christmas wreath.

More than 1,000 White House staff members work in the building. They were sent home, Perino said, but some offices reopened at midafternoon.

President Bush and Cheney visited the firefighters just before noon to thank them. About 110 firefighters and 50 pieces of equipment were sent. Cheney later inspected the damage.

Lawrimore said one person was injured, a Marine who was treated at the White House medical office for cuts on his hand.

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

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