COSMOS -- An early morning fire Thursday destroyed the Cosmos Public Library and forced residents in a neighboring building to evacuate their second-floor apartments.
"A huge loss,'' said Mayor Rich Gieser of Cosmos. "It was one of the most used facilities in town.''
A passerby reported the fire in the structure on Milkyway Street -- the town's Main Street -- shortly after 5 a.m. She had noticed smoke coming from under its eaves.
Volunteer firefighters raced to the fire station located just yards from the library building, but the fire had too much of a head start. Cosmos Fire Chief Jon Fruetel said the fire had already charred a hole in the first floor of the library by the time they arrived, and the basement was well engulfed in flames. Flames were shooting through the library's roof about 20 minutes later, Fruetel said.
The Cosmos firefighters were joined by firefighters from Grove City. Their efforts were directed at keeping the fire from spreading to the neighboring, but separate, brick building. Three or four residents were in the building's upstairs apartments, and had been reluctant to leave. They were ordered to evacuate as the fire in the library intensified. One woman in a wheelchair was assisted in leaving her upstairs apartment.
Fruetel said there was likely some smoke damage in the neighboring apartments, but the building had not sustained any apparent heat damage.
Single-digit temperatures caused some fire hose nozzles to freeze at times, but did not cause any major problems for firefighters, the chief said.
The cause of the library fire was under investigation by the state fire marshal's office, but it was not believed suspicious.
A steady breeze pushed heavy smoke from the library south toward other downtown buildings, forcing those nearest -- including a beauty shop and the Post Office -- to close operations in the morning.
Paul Peterson, the town's barber for 50 years, said the library building was pouring heavy smoke as he arrived downtown to open his shop around 8 a.m.
"We may have lost a lot of history, too,'' said barbershop customer Wayne Anderson of the fire.
Some history was certainly lost: The library held some scrapbooks with old newspaper clippings, and there were other items unique to the town in its collection. Fortunately, a collection of copies of the weekly newspaper once published in Cosmos -- originally the Cosmos Sun and later named the Cosmos News -- is preserved at the City Hall.
The Cosmos library held a collection of approximately 9,000 items, according to Laurie Ortega, assistant director of Pioneerland Library. Pioneerland has insurance on the library's contents, she said.
The city of Cosmos owns the library building and has insurance coverage, according to Kathy Blackwell, city clerk.
The building had originally held a bank. It later served as an attorney's office before it was donated to the city, said Delano Lietzau, a lifelong Cosmos resident. It is believed the building had served as the town's library for about 20 years.
With only about 1,500 square feet of interior space, it was one of the smallest in the Pioneerland system. The city had invested in new siding and remodeling work on the structure in recent years. "It was nice inside,'' said Gieser, who described it as small but comfortable.
The city and Pioneerland will now have discussions about what to do about the loss. In the meantime, Ortega said Cosmos library patrons can return items at and continue to use any other library in the system.
The library fire is the largest in the town's downtown since a February 1995 blaze that destroyed two vacant buildings formerly holding a Laundromat and theater.