LUMBERTON — Lumberton Fire Chief Paul Ivey said on Friday chances are slim that what caused a fire that left a pile of rubble where a two-story downtown building once stood will ever be determined.
According to the chief, the damage was so extensive there just aren’t any clues left behind.
“It will be tough at this point,” Ivey said. “We are going to interview some people that were in the area the night before, not as suspects, but just as people who might have some additional information.”
The Oct. 10 fire generated enough heat to bust the windows of nearby storefronts on Elm Street and enough smoke to permeate hundreds of formal dresses at All Occasions and Bridal. Water used to extinguish the flames destroyed the ceiling of a small space in which a Lumberton native planned to place a candy store and saturated the carpet of J-V TV repair, buildings directly adjacent to the burned-out space that had recently been rented by a church.
The exterior walls of the two buildings were also damaged and were bowed inward, forcing the city to close the sidewalk and roadway to eliminate the potential danger of falling bricks, according to Connie Russ, downtown development coordinator. After the construction of a temporary retaining wall, yellow tape and traffic cones that had blocked Elm Street traffic came down on Thursday, opening up parking spaces for customers at downtown businesses who otherwise may have assumed stores on the street were closed.
“People would come out of one of the side streets, look down Elm see the yellow tape, and just keep going,” Russ said. “Now we hope that when people pull out and look and see that the yellow tape is gone, they will return to support the small businesses downtown.”
W.C. Washington, who owns Washington’s Mens Store along with his wife, Joan, said that the store has suffered from a lack of foot traffic generated by men who wouldn’t go shopping unless they were looking for a way to kill time between business at the courthouse.
“Men don’t seek out a shopping trip,” he said. “They’ll be walking by and think ‘hey, I need a couple of shirts,’ or maybe remember that their wife told them they need new socks. But that kind of traffic has been slow to zero.”
The retaining wall was built around the entrance of the television repair shop that sits next door, which has yet to re-open. On Friday, Dick Taylor, the owner of the now-destroyed building and several others downtown, was working to clean up the area around the building’s interior walls in order to access the space where a new wall will be constructed.
Taylor said a structural engineer he had hired had submitted a plan to repair the wall to the the city, which includes bracing the building’s interior, constructing a new wall and then tearing the old wall down — a plan that Jody Allen, director of inspections, said could take months.
“We’re trying to do everything as quickly as we can, but we’re trying to comply with safety regulations with the city of Lumberton,” Taylor said. “We’re going in the right direction, now it’s just a matter of getting there.”
Taylor said that while he’s not expecting insurance from the burned-out structure to give enough return on his investment to build a new two-story building, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of putting another building in its place.
“Right now, I’m just trying to get this done and get downtown cleaned up,” he said. “I love downtown too much to see it not looking decent.”