Blaze scorches downtown stores

Published 8:32 am Friday, August 7, 2009

Business owners in the 100 block of W. Washington Street spent Thursday afternoon waiting for insurance agents and finding what could be salvaged from their buildings in the wake of a two-alarm fire that closed much of the downtown area.

At Cherry Gift Shop, ceiling tiles lay scattered atop displays and clothes racks, and a pair of shoes in the window was covered with water droplets. A set of stairs leading upstairs was covered in soot and coals from the roof, where daylight streamed through gaping holes where the fire had burned through.

Next door, shelving showcases were covered with tarps and plastic at The Red Thread Studios, as owner Angelia Armstrong waited outside for her insurance agent to come and assess the damage.

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“The upstairs is really bad,” she said. “Smoke and water are the worst.”

A tenant in her building, Dave Immel, who owns a fitness coaching facility that was located upstairs from The Red Thread, was still trying to find out whether his own insurance would cover the damage to his equipment.

“There’s so much smoke damage and water damage,” he said. “The ceiling is scorched. Everything’s covered in crud and soaked.”

The fire started at about 9:30 a.m. in an apartment upstairs from the Cherry Gift Shop, where David Donaldson — who has operated the business along with his sister, Ida Cherry, for the past seven years — discovered it upon entering what had been a kitchen, he said.

“The floor in the kitchen was burning,” he told a fire investigator while watching smoke billow from the upstairs windows of the shop. “The floor was hot, the floor was on fire.”

Donaldson had to hurry from the building without a shirt or shoes.

“The smoke was bad in the kitchen,” he said. “I wasn’t gonna take no chances.”

Sixty firefighters from across the city turned out to fight the blaze, succeeding in containing the flames to the building where the fire started, according to Suffolk spokeswoman Debbie George.

Crews from Chesapeake and Carrsville fire departments provided backfill at Suffolk stations that were emptied of their equipment, she said.

Two ladder trucks and multiple tankers and pumpers were scattered along W. Washington and in the alleyway behind the buildings beginning at about 9:30 a.m.

By 10:30 a.m., gray smoke was seeping from the eaves of the adjacent building, which housed Dave’s Fitness Coaching and The Red Thread Studios. Soon afterwards, firefighters had leaned a ladder against the building and were spraying water through one of the upstairs windows, as black smoke poured from the roof area.

As firefighters poured water on the buildings from the ladder trucks’ extendible perches, a waterfall appeared on the stairs leading down from the apartment above Cherry Gift Shop.

The Salvation Army thrift store, which sits at the corner of W. Washington Street and Saratoga Street and adjoins the Red Thread Studio, escaped damage, though a smoky odor permeated the building Thursday afternoon.

Salvation Army employees and volunteers were getting ready for their morning devotions when they heard the commotion outside.

“I came out the back door, and the fire trucks were pulling up,” manager Jim Evans said. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and (a firefighter) pointed up. I got everybody out.”

“I just thank God,” Evans said. “It could have been much worse. I think the firemen did a really good job.”

George, the city’s spokeswoman, said three firefighters were treated at the scene for heat exhaustion, but there were no other injuries.

Power to much of the downtown area was down for several hours during and after the fire. George said it was restored to the entire district by 4:45 p.m.