Public Safety

Fire ravages downtown Vinton businesses

Blaze started Thursday, continues burning today

(Submitted photo courtesy of Vinton Today)
(Submitted photo courtesy of Vinton Today)

VINTON — Employees at Benton County Title Company had one shot Thursday night at saving whatever office materials they could from the impending smoke damage as a fire barreled through businesses at the other end of the block downtown.

Workers gathered at 11:15 p.m. to carry out paintings, records and office supplies, said Michelle McCann, whose father, Chuck Juhl, owns the company.

By that time, residents were gathering to bring hot pizzas, coffee and doughnuts to volunteers fighting the fire in the bitter cold, and to lend a hand to merchants suddenly needing to salvage goods or find shelter.

“You have to be thankful for a small community like this,” McCann said. “We’ve had stuff like this happen before, and we’ve really come together.”

A fire that destroyed at least three downtown Vinton businesses first was reported Thursday evening at Michael & Dowd Furniture and Appliances, 102 E. Fourth St. Then wind gusts carried flames to neighboring stores, gutting all but the store front of Clingman Pharmacy and the Fischer Law Firm, and causing smoke damage to the connected buildings along the block.

Vinton Fire Department crews started fighting the fire about 7:13 p.m. Thursday and tried all night to contain it. Yet by Friday morning, flames still were shooting at the front of the furniture store.

Chris Staab, assistant fire chief, said the fire had fallen through to the basement of the Michael & Dowd store. Firefighters were working in shifts to keep trying to contain the flames.

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“There’s so much fuel to burn in there, we can’t put enough water on it,” Staab said. “We just don’t want some embers to kick up.”

No injuries have been reported. Before the cause of the fire can be investigated, a structural engineer will assess the buildings and ensure they are safe to enter.

Temperatures hovered in the single digits Thursday night and early Friday as a winter storm blew through. Staab said the temperatures and gusts caused some of the firefighters’ lines and nozzles to freeze.

The Vinton Fire Department was assisted by the Vinton and Garrison police departments, the Garrison, Shellsburg, Urbana, Mount Auburn and Van Horne fire departments, North Benton Ambulance and the Benton County Sheriff’s Office.

Jon Clingman of Clingman’s Pharmacy salvaged the backup hard drive of his business records and is joining with a competing pharmacy to help fill prescriptions.

Dan LaGrange, co-owner of LaGrange Pharmacy, said Clingman’s Pharmacy has set up its offices there to continue serving its customers.

“We have a really good working relationship with Jon,” LaGrange said. “I know he would do the same for us. We were there from minute one doing whatever we could to help Jon.”

LaGrange said it’s still a “work in progress” figuring out how to run two pharmacies out of one location. They’ve also contacted their suppliers to get an emergency shipment, LaGrange said.

“We usually keep enough on hand that this shouldn’t be a problem,” he said.

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City Council member Nathan Hesson said Michael & Dowd and Clingman Pharmacy have been operating in Vinton for decades, and he wants support for those businesses to continue.

“We’ve got a number of fantastic family businesses that have been a staple in the community,” he said. “When something like this happens, it’s devastating for the businesses but also for the residents who’ve been shopping at these stores for generations.”

Hesson said he is proud of residents who helped clear out building materials and of LaGrange for opening his store to Clingman.

“It’s things like that that make you proud to be from Vinton,” he said. “We’ve had floods, winds, tornadoes go through town all in the last seven or eight years. Each time the community has rallied around the people affected.”

Clingman employees watched — crying — on the curb Friday morning as the building was gutted and charred beams of Michael & Dowd’s building fell to the ground.

Colleen Karrick, who has worked at Clingman’s for 20 years, said she was devastated for Clingman and other employees. She said the storefront had recently been reconstructed, and all of Clingman’s antique collection displayed at the front of the store was burned — including a hutch, oak mantelpiece from the 1920s and vintage chairs.

“It’s a family unit there,” she said. “There’s just so much history. We were not able to go in and get anything.”

Frank Kruse, who has lived in Vinton for decades, agreed.

“I always thought of this as a Rockwell painting, driving into town and seeing the old storefronts,” Kruse said. “The looks of the place, that’s a real loss.”

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However, he pointed out that the McDowell’s lumberyard — currently McDowell’s Building Materials — had burned to the ground in 1951.

“That devastated the community when I was a kid,” Kruse said. “As I walked over here, I thought, ‘How interesting that happened to them, and now they’ve come back.’”

Lee Hermiston of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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