Three-alarm fire breaks out at popular White Elephant Flea Market in Channelview

March 16, 2012 2:12:09 PM PDT
Fire lit up the sky above east Harris County early Friday morning, destroying nearly everything in its path at a local flea market. Now that the flames are gone, the business owners are left picking up the pieces and wondering what's next.

That massive three-alarm fire broke out at a popular antiques shop, burning nearly everything inside. It took fire several departments most of the morning to put out the fire at the White Elephant Flea Market along the East Freeway near Carlang in Channelview.

Harris Co. fire marshals say the roof collapsed and the building is destroyed. Firefighters are still putting out hot spots. Officials say they are not ruling out that this fire is suspicious as two buildings on the property were burglarized and three people were seen walking away at around 3:30 this morning, the same time this fire started.

It looked like an inferno. Ferocious flames fighting their way through the roof and windows of the business. The fire attacked the large white tin building as volunteer firefighters struggled to get control of the raging flames. With this blaze blaring and glowing, it didn't take long for worried workers to find out.

"I ran to tell my husband, 'Hon, hon, the flea market is burning,'" said Estella Gonzalez.

"Everything is gone," said one business owner. "Thirty-five thousand. My business is big, you know."

We spoke with one man who has worked at the flea market for years.

"I've been here for five years and that is what I do," said worker Diego Mata. "But now that I'm seeing this, it's like really horrible. It hurts me, you know, because I've been here all of my life, since I was a child. My parents used to be bring me here."

Mata says the booth he works at sells uniform clothing for work and they often leave all of their merchandise inside the building.

For at least two hours, the fire tore through the building before firefighters were able to put it out. And now about 100 booths with jewelry, antiques and other treasures are gone and business owners are left with nothing.

Estella Gonzalez, who had a quinceanera planning business, says her family relied on her earnings.

"I think we lost something like $5,000, $6,000," said Gonzalez. "I'm pretty depressed. This was an investment that we had planned on some earnings we had and now they are gone up in smoke."

Like Gonzalez, many booth owners say they did not have insurance. The owner of the White Elephant Flea Market says the building was insured, but he can only hope for the best.

"We've got some insurance. I doubt if it will cover it, just like normal, we always come out losers," said the owner.

With the signature statue still standing through the devastation, business owners say they are hoping to be able to do the same.

"I don't ever give up. I'm a fighter," said Gonzalez.

According to the The White Elephant Flea Market website, the business has been at the same location for 39 years with more than 400 booths, selling anything from furniture to jewelry. The owner says it is too early to know right now if he can rebuild.

Firefighters are using saws to get to existing hot spots as fire marshals are investigating if this fire was an accident or intentionally set.

No one was injured.