Fire tears through Greene building
(Originally published in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Aug. 2, 2003)
By Wasim Ahmad and Todd McAdam
Press & Sun-Bulletin
GREENE — Greene residents walked by the steaming ruins of Debbie Harrington’s store Friday and wondered where they’d go for their next ice cream cone, figured out where else to rent movies, and guessed how long downtown would smell like a chemistry experiment gone bad.
They didn’t walk around the back of the shell on Genesee Street to see the ax marks carved into the door frame, to see how 150 firefighters from a dozen or more companies worked from desperation to persistence to put the fire out, or how the the entire block was two sparks and a gentle breeze from destruction.
“They made a great save,” said Jack Cook, the town’s assessor, a firefighter and past fire chief. “It was just churning. But the water got put on at the right place and the right time.”
Nobody was injured in the fire, reported at 11:44 p.m. Thursday and brought under control about three hours later. Firefighters remained on the scene until about 6:30 a.m. Friday, then grabbed showers and, for the most part, went to their daytime jobs. The cause of the fire was believed to be electrical in nature.
Harrington, who has owned Deb’s Grocery for seven years, isn’t sure what she’s going to do now.
“It almost feels like I’m going to let them down if I don’t rebuild,” Harrington said.
That Harrington is the only person to face that decision and that task is a credit to some pretty thick bricks and volunteers who wouldn’t take “Get out!” as a standing order.
At 11:44 p.m. a state police trooper looked up from his paperwork. His desk was across the room from village Police Chief Edward Hitt’s. He could hear a popping sound nearby. He stood up, stepped out the door and saw the smoke coming from Harrington’s store, next door. He sent out the alarm.
Fire Chief Rick Woerter arrived a couple of minutes later. He couldn’t see the back of the building, but a column of smoke was pouring out the front, filling Genesee Street with a stench like roasted sewage. It was a store, and he knew it was unlikely that anybody was inside, but the neighbors needed to be protected, too.
A dozen people live in an apartment building on one side of the store. Greene’s village hall is on the other side, with the town hall next door to that. The first firefighters began evacuating the buildings.
“It got really, really ugly for a while,” Woerter said. “We weren’t sure what was going on in the back of the building.”
What was going on is that fire had broken out the windows and much of the wall.
One of Harrington’s 18 employees woke her with a call four minutes after the fire was reported. Harrington pulled on some clothes, climbed into her car and made the mile-and-a-half dash in two minutes. When she got there, she could do nothing but watch 50 or more volunteer firefighters — all of them her neighbors and customers — try to save a village landmark.
“It’s not just a place of business — it had feeling to it,” she said. But by midnight, it was just a smoking, burning pile of stuff and all she could bring herself to worry about was a portrait of her father, who died in 1995. It was the only photograph she had left from her wedding day.
About the same time, John Bennett found he had more to worry about. He used to own the building, but more important, he’s the village mayor, and the village hall is right next door.
By the time he arrived, firefighters were swarming through the streets and trying to enter the building.
“They told us they weren’t sure the fire walls would hold,” Bennett said. So if he and other village employees were going to save anything, they would have to dismantle the computers and yank the files out the door now. He pressed his hand against the wall.
“We were feeling the walls to see how hot they were getting,” he said. A couple of layers of bricks were all that separated him from a fire growing increasingly hotter.
On the other side of the wall, four crews attacked the fire. Each two-man team on the inside was matched with a two-man team on the outside. While dozens more linked hoses to hydrants, or pulled pumpers up to the Chenango River in case the hydrants weren’t enough, those 16 men were all Woerter had at the building.
They cycled in. Each air bottle lasted 20 minutes. A firefighter could stand the 1,000-degree heat for about two bottles before Woerter ordered him out, and Woerter soon began to run out of men.
“Our boys were starting to get whooped, so I called for more manpower,” he said. Oxford, Coventry, Triangle, then Harpursville and Chenango Forks — eventually a dozen departments and 100 more firefighters arrived.
Numbers didn’t always mean success. Firefighters got in the front door, but were stopped there. The teams hacked away at the back door, where the fire was hottest, but teetered and were forced out several times before they could push back in.
There’s a reason bakers use bricks in their ovens. “They just hold in the heat,” Woerter said, and for what amounts to a wood fire, this one would turn bread dough to toast in a matter of seconds.
Six hoses each dumped 350 gallons of water on the building every minute. They were used in turns to avoid blowing a firefighter back on his bottom.
Outside, a team of Brisben firefighters moved a dozen residents of the apartment building to a nearby church, and village workers pulled the records to safety. The people were safe, but the block has nearly half a dozen buildings, ranging from a Radio Shack to a hardware store and gift shop.
Three hours after firefighters arrived, Woerter declared the fire under control. That doesn’t mean out. They were on the scene another three hours, soaking down hot spots, cleaning up the street.
“The fire spread vertically, but not horizontally,” Woerter said. “It’s pretty well gutted between the fire, smoke and water.”
The fire walls held.
Harrington rummaged through the wreckage about 9 a.m. Friday. The windows were blown out. Insulation and wallboard mingled with candy bars and office supplies under a thick black soot. Harrington’s Dell computer dripped from the hoses and a light rain. Ash covered ice cream freezers, shelves, and cashiers’ stations. The plants out front sat wilted and mostly dead. The month-old coat of pastel green paint was scarred with burn marks and soot.
Harrington rescued her Rolodex, some charred but readable papers, and from the wall near her desk, her father’s photograph.
“Once I found that picture of him and it was still OK, I was happy,” she said. “Everything else was just material.”
In back, the pizza oven is destroyed, as is the walk-in freezer. Gutters hang from the roof and pieces of wall and door lie in the alley. Somewhere in there, a fluorescent lighting fixture seems unscathed, although soot-covered. Harrington had the lighting installed in May. It was blamed for the fire.
“There’s nothing remaining in that area,” Woerter said. “It used to be all plywood.”
It still leaves a village mourning a landmark. The block was built in the 1880s, and has been a centerpiece of Greene ever since.
“This was nice because it was family operated,” said D.J. Jones of Greene. “Everybody knows everybody. It’s a hometown place, not from the corporate world.”
Residents will be able to move back in.
Bennett said the village hall has a little water damage, greater smoke damage and a stench bad enough to stop traffic. “I’m not sure we’re going to stay open all day,” he said. “I’m not sure the employees can stand the smell.”
Out front, 12-year-old Sami Keach of Greene looked at the embers of what used to be her hangout. She came with her sister, Sara Krum, just Thursday night for a pizza and soda.
“A lot of Greene kids come here for ice cream,” she said. “It was weird hearing all the fire trucks and windows bursting. It’s going to be different.”
Staff Writer Greg Erbstoesser contributed to this report.
© 2003 Press & Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, N.Y.