Three city businesses destroyed by massive fire

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   J.E. Edwards Jr. stood silently Tuesday afternoon in front of 420 Railroad St., watching flames whipped by gusting winds destroy the building his father had built about 50 years ago.
   "There are a lot of people that used that building over the years. They have had dreams and they have had real serious plans about how they could better their lives. It's kind of sad, just thinking back about it," he said afterward.
   Elizabethton Fire Chief Mike Shouse said firefighters received the alarm at 2:24 p.m. Less than two hours later, the building owned by George Gwinn Jr. was reduced to smoking ruins.
   "We could see the smoke from headquarters when we left," Shouse said. And even as firefighters were arriving, "it was coming through the roof. It got going very quick."
   Shouse said wind gusts estimated at 20 to 30 mph made firefighting matters worse. "It just helps fuel it [fire] and feed it and push it."
   A rolling plume of black smoke, reminiscent of the 2000 fire at North American Rayon, alerted Bertie Long to the fire at her grandson's business.
   Chief Shouse said, "Just as soon as you get a fire into asphalt shingles, you have a lot of black smoke, whether it's on your woodshed out back or at North American."
   Long said her daughter, Judy, called to tell her everyone was all right. Of course you worry about it if it's your property and stuff. But nobody's not killed. That's what worried me. You can always build stuff back -- but when you get killed, your life's gone."
   The building housed three businesses: Tri-Cities Alignment, owned by Steve and Tammy Hamm; Precision Collision Repair, owned by Gwinn; and Scotty's Auto Sales, owned by Jimmy Scott.
   Shouse said the fire, which was still under investigation Tuesday evening, began in the middle section which housed Precision Collision Repair.
   Wayne Sams, a bus driver for Carter County Schools, told Shouse he left the shop around 1:45 p.m. to make his bus run.
   "He advised me that he had been working on a Tahoe SUV inside, doing some grinding work on it all day." Shouse said though it is purely speculation, "during grinding work you've got a lot of sparks going everywhere and very possibly what could have happened was sparks got into the interior of the vehicle and then when he left, it was smoldering and burst into flames."
   The fire chief said Hamm advised him that he was in his shop working when he heard "two pops" at Precision. When he opened the door between the two businesses "he had a lot of fire. He said he grabbed his fire extinguisher and shot it. He said, 'I know when I opened that door I fueled it,' which is natural. Any time you open a door it throws more oxygen to it. It makes it burn a lot quicker."
   Shouse said the fire quickly extended up into the attic and spread horizontally, vertically penetrated the roof and came out the top.
   The two nearest fire hydrants were located across West Elk Avenue in front of Krystal and Pal's restaurants. "We had to kill four lanes of traffic to get to the water," the fire chief said.
   Elizabethton Fire Department sent four pumpers, a ladder truck and four tankers to the scene. Members of Central, Stoney Creek and Watauga Volunteer Fire Departments brought in tankers, allowing firefighters to work off truck water so that traffic could be opened back up for rush hour.
   Carter County Rescue Squad treated the operator of Scotty's Auto Sales for smoke inhalation, Shouse said. "He's up and going all right."
   Firefighters initially were hampered from entering the building. "What happened with this fire is it started burning in the middle portion of the building so it automatically started damaging right at the highest point," Shouse said, weakening the roof structure and causing it to collapse. "If you get your people back in there and something like that happens, you've got dead firefighters. So what we had to try to do was get what we could from just inside the garage doors. We made entry over in the alignment shop and worked through an area in that end.
   "The fire was spreading very rapidly all through this roof structure. We set up a ladder truck and tried to take care of the attic there that we couldn't get to safely from inside.
   Steve Hamm and customer Wayne Perry were inside the alignment shop when the fire broke out. Hamm said he knew that Sams from Precision Collision Repair was gone on his bus route. "I heard popping over there" and went next door to investigate, he said.
   "My wall was on fire between us. I opened the door and his [shop] was fully engulfed in flames, so I just closed the door back and went and got Todd [Scott] out and started moving all of the vehicles out of the shop. We got them all jerked out of the way before the power wires fell. It just went up fast," Hamm said.
   Scott, 37, who operates Scotty's Auto Sales for his father, said, "I'm selling a car and Steve came beating on the glass, yelling 'Fire! Fire!' I had no idea what was going on."
   He and Jerhiah Wilson, 20, an employee at Scotty's, ran outside to see what was happening.
   "I saw the whole ceiling on fire so we ran over and started trying to get my stuff out. We lost cars, motorcycles, all kinds of stuff ... There was a '37 Chevy and a 1000 Kawasaki in the garage," Scott said. The Kawasaki "is melted."
   "We got computers and titles, that was about it. We couldn't do any more. You couldn't even see inside the building. We knew the roof was going to collapse any time so we all just got out the best we could," he said, coughing from smoke inhalation.
   Wilson said, "They put Todd in the back of the ambulance. I was just glad he was all right."
   Hamm said Sams had a 1962 Corvette Stingray inside Precision which he was redoing. "But there just wasn't no time or no way to get everything out. It's gone."
   Keith Carden, owner of Carden's Garage, 404 Railroad St., said he and others in his shop saw the fire and "came over here and helped get the cars out before they burned up. Everybody was calling the shop, wanting to know if it was mine."
   Hamm said everyone worked together to try and remove the 1937 roadster from the garage before the fire got to it. "Everybody jerked and dragged, but it wouldn't move and the smoke was too rough."
   Jancey Bennett, a fourth-grade teacher at Harold McCormick Elementary School and sister of George Gwinn Jr., said she was at school and a lot of parents coming to pick up their children told her "there was a fire at a Goodyear tire company. I didn't even think anything about it."
   She left school and went to her church where they were conducting interviews for a director. "They called at church and said, 'Your family business is on fire; you need to go.' So I left and came over here to try to find out what went on. It's up in smoke, to say the least."
   Surveying the fire damage, she said, "It's more than just the obvious. It's all of the dollars that they put in of their own money and stuff that's not insured, because it's your own personal property."
   J.E. Edwards Jr. said his father, J.E. Edwards Sr., originally built the building as J.E. Edwards Supply Co., a building supply establishment.
   Hamm, looking at the remains of his shop, said, "It don't matter about any of this stuff really, to me. Nobody was hurt and that's all that matters. All of this stuff can be replaced."