Lewisburg landmark destroyed by fire

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
The rear of the building was blazing when this picture was taken at 8:19 a.m.

By Karen Hall

Editor

A vacant building at the corner of East Commerce and Legion streets went up in flames Friday morning, sending up a huge column of smoke and keeping firefighters busy for five hours.

The call came in at 8:15 a.m. and Lewisburg Fire Department was on the scene three minutes later, said Fire Chief Larry Williams.

"It was going pretty good," he said. "The back end of the building was fully involved."

Workers were actually in the process of demolishing the building when the fire broke out. They were cutting through a steel cross member when a spark ignited a mattress on the other side of the wall, Williams said. The workers didn't know the mattress was there, and once they realized it was on fire, they tried to drag it out, but the smoke and flames were too much for them. The 911 call came from a Water Department employee who was driving past.

"The big thing was that it was an old structure with a flat roof, with many layers of tar, and then a rubber coating on it," Williams said. "The fire worked its way up the wall, into the roof, and worked its way forward."

There were 20 Lewisburg firefighters on the scene with three fire engines and the ladder truck. In addition, three Lewisburg police officers controlled traffic, and also there were three gas department workers, six from the electric system, three from the public works department, six from the Emergency Medical Service, and three from the Emergency Management Agency.

One firefighter was transported to Marshall Medical Center with heat exhaustion; he was treated and released.

"Fortunately, that was it," said Williams.

The ladder truck was used to spray water on the fire from above, with three firefighters -- Brandon Fritts, Clint Williams and Darwin Dixon -- rotating in and out of the job at the top of the ladder.

When the fire was out, the demolition crew bulldozed down what remained of the building and spread out the rubble, with the fire department putting out "hot spots" as they were found.

Williams explained they couldn't just let the unoccupied building burn down because of the risk to surrounding properties, including a pawn shop next door, and Andy's Tire across the street.

At the height of the fire, Williams estimated they were using 1,500 to 2,000 gallons of water a minute. This was not a problem for Lewisburg Water and Wastewater, said Superintendent Kenneth Carr. Surplus water ran downhill into Rock Creek, but EMA and city stormwater personnel checked and there were no contaminants going into the creek, Williams said.

"We're sad to see the building go," said Gwendolyn Wiles, whose late husband Ed Wiles ran the Ford dealership there for many years. "It's a landmark gone."

Dr. J.C. Leonard built it in 1947, long before the bypass existed, when Commerce Street was the main east-west route through town.

There was a gas station there, said Leonard's daughter Gene Douglas Parsons. "Then they went to selling cars."

Williams remembered going there with his parents four or five times when they bought vehicles, and Assistant Chief Jason Davis remembered shopping for a truck there.

Wiles Ford moved to the corner of North Ellington Parkway and Rock Crusher Road in 1992, recalled Wiles. The building on the bypass, which now houses Stan McNabb Ford, had been empty for several years, and needed a lot of renovation before it could be a Ford dealership.

Nevertheless, "it was a good move," said Wiles. The dealership had run out of space at the old East Commerce location, and the bypass was now the retail center of town.

After Wiles Ford moved to the bypass, the building was occupied by a second-hand shop until it was purchased by Lewisburg Printing last year. They are intending to build a warehouse on the site, Parsons said.