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Fire rages at massive former Illinois clock factory

PERU, Ill. (AP) — A large fire broke out at a massive former Peru clock factory as revelers were ringing in the new year, drawing firefighters from surrounding northern Illinois communities to help out and leading to the mandatory evacuation of residents from nearby homes early Sunday.

The fire at the former Westclox clock complex, a city landmark that covers a two-by-four-block stretch of downtown Peru and encompasses several buildings, including some converted into working shops and businesses, began around the time people began counting down the seconds to 2012, Gary Eccles, an engineer with the city's fire department, told The Associated Press.

No reports of serious injuries were reported, but one firefighter suffered a minor injury at the scene, Eccles said. Investigators hadn't determined what caused the blaze.

Karen Torri, a local resident, told The News Tribune that she was startled by what she saw when she looked out the window after ringing in the new year at a party.

"Just as we were kissing, I looked out the window and saw the fireworks, but it wasn't fireworks; it was fire engines," she said.

Police Chief Douglas Bernabei told the newspaper that as of 4:30 a.m., firefighters were making "significant progress," but that the fire was still burning.

Fire officials, worried about the possibility the blaze could spread to nearby homes, ordered the evacuation of homes on the closest streets, and a room at city hall was opened to accommodate the displaced, the paper reported. It wasn't immediately clear how many residents were affected.

Dana Slawter, who recently moved to Peru from Philadelphia, said she had just returned home from a party when she was told to leave. She said she had just begun learning the factory's history and that it would be sad if it went up in smoke.

"It's upsetting," Slawter, cradling her Chihuahua, Cinnamon, told The News Tribune.

The building, a landmark in the city that once housed Westclox Co.'s clock and watch-making operations decades ago, currently houses several small businesses, including a salon, a photo business, a lab and others, the newspaper reported.

Westclox built 44 structures at the complex from 1910 until 1956, then closed in 1980. A group of investors bought the building and sold it to developers in 2006, who said they planned to convert it into a retail and convention center while maintaining its history integrity.

The National Park Service in 2007 deemed the building eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places "because of its significant contributions to the social and economic development of Peru and the nation," the newspaper reported.

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