FAIRMONT — At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, the burned-out shell of the strip shopping center on North Walnut Street in Fairmont was still smoking from the fire that consumed it Friday evening, taking from the community three key pieces of local commerce.
Cars and trucks came and went, some filled with folks just wanting a look and others with disappointed shoppers. Three businesses — Dollar Tree, The Meat Store and True Value — were destroyed, and as many as 40 employees are out of work.
The shopping center was gutted with twisted metal at all angles and the roof’s remnants resting on the ground. The roof was gone except in a far corner of The Hardware Store. The True Value sign was partially melted and resting on the sidewalk in front of the building.
By 4 p.m. Saturday, the smoke had mostly subsided, but the Fairmont Volunteer Fire Department arrived to pour some more water on several flare-ups. A State Bureau of Investigation agent was on hand to begin the investigation into the cause of the blaze. Fairmont police closed off the parking lot.
“It is still under investigation, and that’s all we got at this time,” said the SBI’s Austin Warren. “We don’t have a timetable.”
Warren cautioned that most of what is heard on the street about a fire is not accurate. That said, everybody had a story and many of them were first hand.
Fairmont Police Chief Jon Edwards said he got a call at approximately 5:45 p.m. Friday.
“It started at Dollar Tree, according to our review of photos and video,” Chief Edwards said. “Wind was a factor. This was the biggest fire I’ve worked.”
The call went out quickly for mutual aid and departments from as far away as Clarkton and Bladenboro arrived. One witness said, “I’ve never seen so many fire trucks.”
The fire raged for five hours before the heat subsided. No injuries were reported by fightfighters.
Dollar Tree is on the north end of the shopping center. Witnesses said the fire got into the ceiling and moved quickly toward The Meat Store and True Value, pushed by the wind. True Value employee Shauna Oxendine, who was working at the U.S. Cellular shop inside, said she saw smoke and went to the front door.
“It didn’t look so bad, so I went back and took a pre-payment,” Oxendine said. “Then, they told us to leave. I didn’t take anything with me because we all thought it would be put out in a few minutes.
“I got my phone that’s all,” she said. “I lost two jobs. I’m a struggling college student with a truck payment.”
The personal toll is just beginning to sink in. Like Oxendine, Julia Ellerby was a new employee of The Hardware Store, and it was their first jobs. Ellerby was also working inside when the fire broke out.
“It doesn’t seem real; it hit me this morning; I felt sick, depressed,” Ellerby said. “This was a great place to work. It’s family.”
Another of the store’s 14 employees, Michelle Serrano, who has worked there for eight years, agreed.
“There will never be a family place to work like the hardware store,” Serrano said. “My girls used to come here after school. They pretty much grew up here.”
True Value is an 80-year-old business that was owned for many of those years by the Ellefson family and managed by their son, Stein.
Stein’s wife, Melissa, said they were busy Saturday trying to stop a business in mid-gallop. The insurance company was called, mail delivery changed and orders cancelled.
“This business has served the community for a long time,” Melissa said. “It was the town’s only hardware store.”
Smoke blew by McDonald’s restaurant all night and into the morning. It is about 100 yards from the shopping center.
“We got very busy,” said assistant manager April Abram. “We fed at least 50 firefighters, and served coffee later when it got cold.”
McDonald’s only casualty was the sweet tea. There was not enough water pressure to make it as water was diverted to fight the fire.
“This is a tragic loss,” said Commissioner Terry Evans, who surveyed the damage Saturday morning. “Thank God nobody was hurt. We can replace anything in this town but the people.”
Facebook on Saturday was busy with Fairmont residents mourning the loss, expressing sympathies not only to the owners of the businesses, but the employees and patrons.
Opinions often vary on Facebook, but on this they agreed: Fairmont has lost a big piece the town.