LUMBERTON — Hours after an early morning fire left a gaping hole in the heart of downtown on Wednesday, business owners in adjacent buildings were working to clean up the mess caused by heat, water and smoke.
Shattered glass lined the sidewalks of Elm Street as business owners patched up their storefronts and set up fans for ventilation.
“All I smell right now is smoke,” said Cherry Spruill as she answered calls from worried brides-to-be at her shop, All Occasions & Bridal, at 312 N. Elm St. “Upstairs, there’s some water.”
Spruill’s father, Carl, didn’t even try to tally up the cost of cleaning the store’s 400 prom gowns and 275 wedding gowns. Even the dresses encased in plastic bags were permeated with the smoky odor.
“You’re talking about a truckload,” he said. “We might have to fly in some dresses from New York for some upcoming weddings.”
The cause of the blaze that gutted the building at 305 N. Elm St. could take days to determine, according to Lumberton Fire Chief Paul Ivey. He said the fire department will do a joint investigation with the insurance company to determine the source of the blaze.
“The fire had grown so big by the time we got there that there’s no way to determine where it started until we investigate,” he said.
Firefighters left the 300 block of Elm Street, near the downtown plaza, at about 11:30 a.m., Ivey said, but still-smoldering hotpots in the debris required crews to return in the afternoon to prevent a flare-up. It took about an hour for the 42 firefighters from Lumberton, East Howellsville and Northwoods to contain the blaze, he said.
Connie Russ, the town’s downtown development coordinator, said this morning that “the street has reopened for business as usual.”
There is some debris to clear from streets, but power has been restored to the street.
“What is left now is up to the individual property owners,” she said.
Jamie Pittman, of Robeson Glass, worked to install a new window pane at Bella’s Chic Boutique, across the street from the burned-out building. He marveled at how hot the fire had to have been to break sheet after sheet of glass in the windows of Elm Street businesses.
“This doesn’t happen too often,” he said as he looked down the sidewalk at five shattered storefronts. “We have a whole lot of work because of it.”
Donnie Rabon, owner of the boutique, was glad the damage wasn’t worse.
“We’re lucky, we’re one of the first stores getting fixed,” Rabon said. “We had a lot of damage done to the glass on our building, but nothing inside of the store was damaged.
“We were fortunate. We were able to keep the smell at bay with a makeshift window cover.”
Dick Taylor, who owns an insurance company directly behind the burned-out building, said that seven of the buildings he owns downtown were damaged by the fire. Taylor was in a meeting in Chapel Hill and rushed back to Lumberton when he got the call about the blaze.
“It’s not just bad for me, it’s bad for the merchants,” he said. “It’s created a lot of hardship for all of them and it’s very sad.”
Taylor said the burned-out building been rented by Good Shepherd Church, which had planned to hold its first church service this week. He said “it’s too early to determine” what he’s going to do with the empty space.
A small building right beside the pile of rubble where the would-be church had stood took the brunt of the damage and will probably be condemned, Taylor said. The building had been rented in August by Felicia Evans Long, a Lumberton native who had been planning on “bringing something sweet to downtown” in time for the city’s Christmas parade.
Although she had gathered items for her candy store, Long said she had not yet secured insurance and that she did not have the financial resources “to go back and recap.” She fought back tears as she looked up at what was left of the building’s water-laden ceiling, part of which had collapsed into a heap onto the floor.
“I sort of feel like I’m at square one,” she said as she moved her items into a space down the street that Taylor had opened up for free storage. “I just spent $300 yesterday and it’s all gone, it’s all washed up.”
Long said she was still determined to make her dream of opening “Sweet Candy Cafe” a reality.
“I’m going to turn this thing around,” she said. “I’m still excited, I’m just emotionally taken aback. But I’m going to keep working vigorously.”
Demetria Wesley, the owner of 314 Hair Gallery, said that her store was mostly unharmed except for some water damage to the floor and ceiling.
“I’m just thankful no one got hurt,” Wesley said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Woody Bowen, who ones a law office on Elm Street near the courthouse, was among those surveying the damage.
“It’ll be a bit of a setback, but I think downtown is destined to revive,” he said.