By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
Two 11-year-old Quincy boys were taken into custody in connection with the fire that destroyed a huge, historic house at the corner of Fifth and Maple Thursday afternoon.
Fire, police and other emergency units were called to 1501 N. Fifth at 5:07 p.m. The former Anna Brown Home for the Aged could not be saved and large crowds gathered to watch the blaze.
Quincy police immediately began an investigation into the fire in a building where no utilities were hooked up. Police said early today that both juveniles were taken into custody on charges of arson and criminal damage to property and later released to their parents.
Toni and Neal Hemming owned the house and had hoped to rehabilitate the property for apartments. The Hemmings said it was a constant battle to secure the property, which they said had been a target for arsonists.
"We had previous arson attempts ... in February, but they were unsuccessful," Toni Hemming said. "Kids were trying to light that (new addition) on fire. They were caught. It just so happened we were on premises when they actually were coming back to finish the thing."
The Hemmings bought the building Dec. 31, and were planning to renovate it and put five living units on each floor, as well as four units in the north structure.
Neal Hemming said Charles and Anna Brown built the three-story house circa 1875. It was a private residence at that time and was later left to Good Samaritan Home. An addition was built in 1901 and over the years the sprawling complex was used as a care facility and later as an apartment building. In recent years it had been vacant.
Jill Boden, who lives across the street from the house at the corner of Fifth and Maple, was among the first to notice the fire.
"She thought her house was on fire because of all the smoke," said Shanna Willis, a cousin who lives on the corner of Fourth and Maple.
Willis watched from her back porch as the building burned. Her back yard was packed with onlookers she didn't know.
"I was hoping they would do something with it, get some cheap housing. I'm not really bummed out about it, but well it's been there a long time," Willis said.
Willis and Boden said when they first saw the fire a little after 5 p.m. Smoke was coming from an elevator shaft on the south side of the building. Smoke was thick and wood walls and floors within the building caught fire quickly.
Quincy emergency dispatch was alerted to the fire at 5:07 p.m. Firefighters called in additional units soon after reaching the scene and found heavy black smoke coming from the roof. A fire truck with a water cannon was placed in an alley on the west side of the building, but had to move later as the heat and flames became intense after flames broke through most of the roof.
"They entered the west side of the building but had to pull out pretty quickly," said Assistant Fire Chief Tom Bentley.
Eight fire units and the fire chief's vehicle were on the scene along with 45 firefighters. One crew remained on the scene this morning, watching for hot spots.
Smoke from the fire was visible for miles. People approaching Quincy along U.S. 24 in Missouri saw smoke and later could make out flames. Willis said her husband could smell smoke from the blaze when he was near Gem City Pizzeria at 18th and State.
Toni Hemming said the building is insured, but she would have preferred to rehabilitate it and preserve an piece of the city's history.
"We had it all drawn up," Neal Hemming said.
The couple held hands near Fourth and Maple as they watched the blaze.
"I was down here this morning" checking on the property, Toni Hemming said.
They pointed to an open window on the second floor that had been closed earlier in the day.
Willis said the building had been a magnet for unsupervised kids and homeless adults.
"One night I watched the police chase a guy through the building with flashlights. They caught him. I think he had been living there," Willis said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated.