Fire guts downtown businesses

Published 5:00 am Friday, May 25, 2007

A part of Brookhaven history was lost early Thursday morningwhen fire gutted several downtown businesses.

The first call came in around 4:53 a.m., said Brookhaven PoliceChief Pap Henderson.

The fire started somewhere in the Posey Place, a business thatproduces soaps, candles and assorted bath products on-site. Thespeciality store is located at 106 1/2 Whitworth Avenue and islocated in a building thought to have been constructed in the1850s.

When Brookhaven Fire Department units arrived, flames werecoming from the second story Posey Place roof, said Chief BobWatts.

“It’s where we found the main fire,” Watts said this morning atthe scene.

All Brookhaven Fire Department personnel and trucks were calledout, he said.

The fire quickly spread to a neighboring building at the cornerof Monticello Street and Whitworth Avenue. The second building isoccupied by several businesses, including Tri-County FinancialLoans, Brookhaven Electronics and Louise’s Family Fashion.

Most of the corner of the block was fully engulfed with fire by6 a.m.

“I think we have it pretty much contained to here,” Watts said,of the corner section of buildings.

Watts indicated that firefighters were having a hard timegaining access to the upper areas of the building because ofblocked stairwells. Due to the age of the buildings, they wereburning at a fast rate, he said.

Charles Lofton, owner of the corner building, said the structurewas pre-Civil War and was most likely built in the 1850s. He saidthe building was not insured.

“I’m self-insured,” he said.

Lofton said yearly insurance premiums of $20,000 led him to thatdecision.

Wayne Richardson, owner of Tri-County Financial Loans, made theinitial call to 911 to report smoke coming from the PoseyPlace.

“There was just a bunch of smoke when I called 911,” he said.”The smoke woke me up.”

When Richardson emerged from his building he saw flames comingfrom the Posey Place. Richardson, who also lives at the business hehas had since 1992, rents the building from Lofton and said he wasinsured.

“I’ve lost everything,” Richardson said of his business andhome.

He was devastated by the morning fire, but was optimistic aboutthe future.

“The Lord has a way of taking care of everything,” he said.

Jan Bullock, owner of the Posey Place, was unaware of the fireuntil 7 o’clock this morning when she received a call. Afterarriving at the scene, she said she was devastated.

“There’s no live electrical upstairs – nothing,” Bullock said.”No one has been upstairs in days.”

Bullock didn’t speculate on the cause of the fire.

Bullock moved her business from a Cherokee Street location andpurchased the building on Whitworth Avenue in March 2003. She hadrenovated the 4,500 square foot downstairs area into a retail spaceand had plans to turn the 3,500 square feet upstairs intoapartments.

The building was a total loss. By 8 a.m. the second floor androof had collapsed onto the first floor of the Posey Place.

Bullock said her building was insured.

Mayor Bob Massengill was on the scene early this morning.

“This is awful,” the mayor said.

Massengill praised firefighters for their efforts early thismorning.

“They saved a lot of downtown today,” he said. “I’m so proud ofthe men for doing what they’re doing. This is a mighty bigfire.”

Watts also praised his men for their efforts.

“Anytime you cut a fire off with these types of buildings,you’ve done your job,” he said.

Watts said all of the training the men have been through hasprepared them for this day. He said the last fire that requiredthis type of manpower was when the strip mall where the HumanPerformance Center is located burned several years ago.

“All the training and practice has paid off,” Watts said.

He also praised the county volunteer fire departments. They hadall come to man the city’s fire stations while the city battled thedowntown blaze as part of a mutual aid countywide plan.

Watts said firefighters would be on the scene most of the dayputting out hot spots as they flare up.

One firefighter, Mark Porter, was slightly injured around 6:30a.m. when a ladder slipped and possibly injured his knee, Wattssaid. He was transported to King’s Daughters Medical CenterEmergency Room.

Watts said he didn’t think the injury was serious, but he hadnot been able to call to check on Porter’s status as of 7:30a.m.

The businesses located in the building that faced MonticelloStreet were also lost. They included Louise’s Family Fashion at 109W. Monticello St. and Brookhaven Electronics at 115 W. MonticelloSt.

Louise Crawford, owner of Louise’s, sat across the street fromher store and watched as firefighters battled the blaze. Shearrived at the scene around 6 a.m. after a police officer calledand notified her brother.

“It’s like it’s not even happening,” she said as tears rolleddown her face.

Crawford has operated the family clothing store for the pastthree years. She also rented from Lofton, and was uninsured.

Her sister-in-law Annie Wilcher was with Crawford to offer hersupport.

“You can replace material things,” she said. “You can’t replacepeople.”

Also lost was Brookhaven Electronics, a 25-year-old businessowned by Edward Holmes. The business specialized in repairingtelevisions and electronics, said his brother-in-law, JeremiahBryant, who was at the scene and speaking to Holmes from his cellphone.

The buildings to the left of the Posey Place on Whitworth Avenuewere threatened by the fire, but a double bricked 18-inch firewallis probably what saved them, said Shannon Knott, owner ofBrookhaven Cycle and Sport. He rents his building from Forest andImogene Crowley, owners of the building and the Crowley DanceCenter which is located on the second story of the building.

“I have some water and smoke damage,” Knott said.

Knott said, initially, firefighters were worried because thewall separating his business from the Posey Place was extremelyhot. Firefighters were keeping it watered down to cool it off.

Knott has operated the business for the past 10 years and saidhis business is insured.

Forest Crowley said he bought the building in 1994 and openedhis dance studio in 1995.

“The 18 inches of firewall between us is what saved us,” Crowleysaid. “It was tremendously hot.”

Also spared were the buildings farther south on WhitworthAvenue, including businesses between Factory Connection andTrustmark Bank. The Military Museum and old Brookhaven Train Depotdid not receive any damage.

Bullock, who was still on the scene at 8 a.m., said she wasstill in shock.

“I can’t imagine not continuing on somewhere,” she said. “Idon’t know at this point how that will be.”