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None hurt, 1 arrested among fire onlookers

Without any injuries and making only one arrest, police managed a rowdy crowd of Medford residents who turned out for Tuesday's spectacular Front Street fire.

— — — — — Related stories:

? — -Utility service restored after warehouse blaze

Power and cable services were restored to neighborhoods surrounding Tuesday night's massive fire at Front and 11th streets. But getting phones up and running took a little more time.

Phone service was scheduled to be restored to approximately 1,000 customers at 8 a.m. today. Service was restored to about 500 customers early Wednesday, said Gary Miller, area manager for Qwest. Crews needed to replace about 1,150 feet of cable that was damaged in the blaze before everyone's phones are working again, he said.

Although they were miles from the blaze, about 1,500 to 1,800 Charter cable television customers in Central Point, Eagle Point, White City and parts of east Medford had to go without cable television Wednesday until all service could be restored around midnight, said Gary McDonald, Charter general manager. The fire melted cable fibers on a telephone pole near the old packing plant, McDonald said. The fibers carried cable service to outlying communities north of Medford, McDonald said. Homes in the vicinity of the fire did not lose service, he added.

Electricity was restored around 12:20 a.m. Wednesday to all but 15 homes and businesses near the fire, said Monte Mendenhall, spokesman for Pacific Power. The remaining few had electricity again by 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Nearly 700 customers in a perimeter around the Front Street fire lost power for several minutes late Tuesday before Pacific Power crews could isolate power lines near the burning building. — — At least 25 Medford police officers and community service officers, with the help of Oregon State Police, Jackson County sheriff's deputies and Central Point police, tackled traffic and crowd control around Front, Central and Fir streets, said Medford police Lt. Tim George. Two detectives were called to help interview witnesses at the scene, he added.

Ten off-duty Medford officers were called back onto the streets late Tuesday, George said, adding that he considered calling out the department's 15-member SWAT team just to get officers there in a hurry.

Police first warned onlookers about the possibility of falling power lines and the building collapsing. But rumors of leaking ammonia tanks forced officers to push the crowd even farther from the fire.

Once the information came out about the ammonia, then we extended the safety perimeter, George said.

Police were halting cars and pedestrians two blocks from the blaze that consumed an old warehouse running nearly the length of a city block between 11th and 12th streets.

The warehouse had four tanks full of more than 2,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, said Mark Burns, chief of Medford Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Team.

The ammonia was used in a cooling system much like Freon in an air-conditioning unit, said David Culbertson, the building's owner. The system was used to cool other fruit-packing houses until last year.

Despite police officers' fears that the tanks would catch fire and cause a deadly explosion, onlookers and firefighters would not have been in danger if that took place, Burns said. The intense heat of the fire would have burned up the ammonia, which can cause breathing problems if inhaled in heavy amounts, Burns said. If the tanks were destroyed, Burns said crews would not have needed to remove the potentially toxic substance.

Had it breached during the fire, it could have been a good thing, Burns added. It's very, very toxic. It's a poison. But it would have burned up in the fire.

The remaining ammonia in the tanks poses a threat only if a person were to become trapped in a cloud of the gas and couldn't escape, Burns added.

They were never in any serious jeopardy, he said of onlookers.

Police and fire crews received no reports of anyone injured in the crowds. However, guests in the City Center Motel on South Central Avenue were evacuated when the motel lost electricity, George said.

One Medford man was arrested after he refused to comply with officers' orders that he stay away from the fire. Joseph Kantor, 51, was cited and released for disorderly conduct.

George said he believes officers and firefighters did an outstanding job for the situation. In addition to the fire, police calls that included several domestic disturbances, a child neglect case and a burglary were more numerous than usual for a Tuesday night, George added.

In June, police completed a training session in crowd control and riot suppression at North Medford High School. Twenty officers will attend a similar state police training session in September, George said.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail . Meg Landers contributed to this report.