Large structure fire in Boonville displaces workers with disabilities

Thursday, February 2, 2012 | 1:05 p.m. CST; updated 4:47 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Boonville firefighters work to put out a fire that started earlier in the morning at Unlimited Opportunities Inc. in Boonville on Thursday. Unlimited Opportunities Inc.'s complex contained a recycling center and resale store that were both affected by the fire.

BOONVILLE — On an otherwise clear day, a gray cloud of smoke could be seen from as far as mile marker 120 on Interstate 70.

A large structure fire occurred Thursday morning at Unlimited Opportunities Inc. at 1620 W. Ashley Road in Boonville, which provides housing services and employment opportunities to people with disabilities.

Tim Carmichael, chief of the Boonville Fire Department, said there were no injuries. A ladder truck from the Columbia Fire Department helped the Boonville department fight the fire.

Several 911 calls and the fire alarm in the building notified the department of the fire. The crews were on scene within five minutes.

Carmichael, who arrived first, said the fire and smoke were heavy due to the combustible materials stored in the Unlimited Opportunities recycling room such as cardboard, newspaper and magazines. A second-hand clothing store in the same building complex, Savvy Seconds, also held large amounts of clothes.

"Plenty to fuel the fire and enable it to quickly spread throughout," he said.

No arson is suspected, but the cause is unknown at the time, he said. There are no estimates of damage.

Jerry Saling, a former employee of Boonslick Industries, the extended employment workshop of Unlimited Opportunities, said he arrived around 8 a.m. and was shocked to see the place where he has worked for seven years in flames.

"There was at least $200,000 of equipment burning including two horizontal balers, shredders and can crushers," he said. "Our clients will have nowhere to go. This will affect them terribly because it could take a long time to rebuild."

Economically, the community will also feel the impact of the large structure fire.

"There are more than a 100 jobs for the staff — a lot of people will lose work," Saling said.

Kip Brewer, recycling manager at Boonslick Industries, said on Thursday afternoon that the company already has made preparations about resuming work.

"We expect a good deal of the staff to be back on Monday, just at different locations," he said. "We have found alternative building spaces, and although our programs will be separated, our staff will be back at work."

Bruce Waibel, the maintenance supervisor at Unlimited Opportunities, said he arrived around 7:30 a.m.

"Pretty soon the fire alarm kicked off, but I wanted to check to make sure it wasn't a false alarm," he said. "But when I saw smoke I started yelling and telling everyone to get out. I opened the door to the recycling room and saw the fire climbing up the walls."

"The fire started at the perfect time — right before our clients, who have disabilities, arrived. It could've been a lot more challenging to evacuate safely due to their disabilities," Waibel said.

Across the street, observers gathered around and watched the firefighters combat the blaze. With their hands above their eyes blocking the sun, Tonya Eubanks, Savannah Kraus and Katie Kinder watched the fire.

"As good as a community as we are, I know everyone will help, and take care of everything that needs to be done to rebuild," said Eubanks, who is a care provider at Village Green, a supported living area in Boonville, whose clients often find work at Unlimited Opportunities.  

Katie Kinder and Savannah Kraus, who both live in Village Green, said they'll miss Savvy Seconds the most.

"It was best for Halloween costume shopping," Kraus said. "And they had cool Valentine's Day baskets."

Kinder said she went to Unlimited Opportunities at least twice a week to visit her boyfriend, Donald Bittle, who works there.

"He'll be affected pretty badly by this."

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