Gallery: Columbus Market Fire [4 Images] Click any image to expand.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, John Carr was one of the shop owners still cleaning out his store as customers strolled through the Columbus Farmers Market. It was the first time the indoor market was open in nine days, after a four-alarm fire tore through Building No. 4 and destroyed the 10 businesses located inside it on Nov. 18.
Though a number of businesses still weren’t able to open their doors to the public Nov. 26, the market ownership made a big push to reopen in time for one of its busiest sales days of the year.
“I didn’t understand [the owners’] motivation, their reasoning at first,” Carr said. “They were like, we have to open quick…But now I see they were right. Because if we would’ve gotten into this big repair mode, we would have never got this back up before Christmas.”
The fire struck at possibly the worst time of year; from Thanksgiving Day and leading up to Christmas is when many store owners there make the majority of their sales. So, the shop and market owners had their work cut out for them to be ready in time to recoup some of those sales. The market brought in a professional cleaning service to clean the undamaged buildings, said market manager Janice Ackerman, who spoke on behalf of the Columbus Market owners.
Though Building 4 was the only one that caught on fire, smoke and water damage to neighboring buildings destroyed many of the items other shop owners had in stock, in addition to caking the floors, walls and ceilings with soot.
Carr threw out about 40 guitars that suffered smoke damage, and by mid-December was still putting out new guitars to fill some of the empty display hooks. “The horns, trumpets, all those you can clean easily,” he said. “It’s metal. But the wood, the inside of a guitar is not painted, so it kind of soaks in.”
It was the same story for many of the nearby businesses. Now in a corner display in Building 5, Mike Elsaadi had relocated his store, Vogue USA Shoes, from Building 3 after smoke and water damage destroyed nearly 1,000 pairs of shoes.
Cheryl Cochran of The Chicken Coop had to throw out nearly 90 percent of her inventory after the fire, but the biggest loss was her Thanksgiving fried turkey sales; she had to refund all the pre-orders she’d already received for the holiday and wasn’t even able to open her store until almost two weeks after the blaze.
Like most of the shop owners at the market, Cochran received calls from customers and friends with news that the market was on fire that Tuesday afternoon, but the fire and police crews had quickly blocked off U.S. 206 from public travel. Instead, Cochran frequently checked the feed from surveillance cameras installed at her store once she got word of the fire, but she could only see smoke each time she checked, until they eventually lost power.
The fire had started at about 2 p.m. on Nov. 18, a Tuesday when the indoor market is normally closed. In all, close to 29 Burlington County fire stations and 125 firefighters responded to the call, said Juliustown Fire Company Chief John Trout.
“There was smoke, and it was heavy smoke, coming from Building 4,” Trout said about the state of the fire when the first fire companies arrived on the scene. “And flames were just coming out of the eaves of the building.”
Especially windy weather contributed to the spread of the fire, but Trout noted that the use of the buildings’ fire doors and the aggressive response by the fire companies kept the flames from spreading, with the fire declared under control at about 3:45 p.m.
The fire doors had been closed, Trout said, by a few remaining business owners on their way out of the building, including one of the market owners. A silver lining, Ackerman said, was the fact that the fire happened on a Tuesday, when the indoor market was closed, and that no one was hurt in the blaze.
“That was a true holiday blessing,” she said.
Ackerman also pointed out that the outdoor market was unaffected by the fire, and had kept its normal operating hours without missing a beat. In the following weeks, the lingering effects of the fire were still felt most in the two buildings bordering the destroyed corner Building 4.
As a temporary way to direct market traffic around the remaining shell of the building, the heavy fire doors remained closed, with a chain link fence outside marking off an outdoor path for visitors between the neighboring buildings.
“The flow is different,” Carr said. “The people flow through here, but they can’t go through the [next building]. It’s not quite the same.” In mid-December, some shop owners were concerned that customer traffic through the market seemed less frequent than usual, but were hopeful that the weeks leading up to Christmas would see increased sales.
As of press time, the farmers market was still awaiting the results of the fire investigation to determine the cause, which many tenants needed to move forward with insurance claims.
According to Columbus Farmers Market attorney Matthew McCrink, eyewitness accounts described a sparking light fixture in Building 4 just before the fire started.
McCrink said Dec. 23 that the fire appeared to originate in that area, but expected to find out the official cause within 2–3 weeks.
Ackerman said once the investigation was complete and the destroyed building was released, it would be demolished, with plans in the works to rebuild Plans were already being discussed to clean out and rebuild the area where the fire occurred, with hopes of opening the new building by June.
Initial plans for the building include making it bigger and more modern, with one section including a food court, McCrink said, noting that the plans are still subject to approval from local authorities.
On Dec. 22, Ackerman confirmed that all the shops in the market, except for those in Building 4, were up and running and open to the public. And despite the struggles of the past few weeks, many store owners were optimistic about moving forward.
“We’re lucky, really, compared to what those business owners are going through,” Cochran said about the Building No. 4 tenants. After she’d reopened her store, Cochran said she’d had customers come in who had been refunded for their Thanksgiving turkey deposits, who instead planned to order the turkeys for Christmas Eve.
Elsaadi said he had already gotten positive reactions from customers to his new storefront space for Vogue USA Shoes. He also was still prepared for the Christmas season, when he hands out small gifts like blankets and t-shirts to his customers, even if they haven’t purchased anything.
“So sometimes from bad things comes good things, you know?” Elsaadi said.
One of the most important points many store owners noted was how thankful they were for the quick response from the management and the support of their customers.
“I’m very optimistic for not just for The Chicken Coop, but the whole market, the way their plans are to get this whole market back up for the customers,” Cochran said. “The Columbus owners are incredible. There’s no one who could’ve handled what happened better than they did.”
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