By the time we arrived, the temperature was just passing 85 degrees, and there was not a breeze in the air. I saw the flashing red and blue lights first. Kathy saw the aerial attack. The target was black-twisted metal, with steam rising from the labyrinth of I-beams and aluminum siding.
The fire started about 4:45 a.m. at the O’Reilly's Auto Parts store on the Business Loop 70 East and North Garth. I, like many of the other rubberneckers, assumed the fire started in the Hong Kong Restaurant, but it didn't. Oils and other accelerants in the auto parts store caused the fire to move through the mall so quickly — at least, that is the current speculation. The strip center is now only a black mark on the landscape.
Gone are Sami's Beauty Supply, Adam's Barber Shop, Hong Kong Restaurant and of course, O'Reilly's. Only the Dollar General is recognizable because the side of the store holding up the sign is still standing.
For most of us, especially those who have not lived through a major fire, tornado, flood or other disaster that obliterates the landside, the scene seems alien. No one was hurt, no one died, but now a lot of people are out of work and the neighborhood is in despair. I do hope they all had insurance. I hope that O'Reilly's and Dollar General take care of their displaced employees.
The two aerial units were still putting water on the hot spots at 3 p.m., 10 hours after the fire. Puffs of steam appeared when the liquid hit a smoldering section. A demolition Caterpillar was taking down the ceilings and wall — at least what was left of the ceiling and walls. There were still air conditioning units on the roof of the building. The fear was they would fall through, and it was not safe for firefighters to conduct an investigation of what was left of the structure.
About eight firefighters were resting in the shade provided by the Payless Shoes store on the corner. They looked beyond beat, in need of a gallon of Gatorade each, and a long cold shower. Payless was not damaged by the fire, though the spectators, now about two dozen, wondered if the Pepsi facility next door had any damage from the smoke. I joked about Pepsi’s newest flavor — barbecue Pepsi and Mountain Dew.
Thirteen firefighting units participated with 35 firefighters. A second alarm was called but sent back. Saving the building was not the objective; containment was, as was the safety of the residents on three sides of the center.
Reason and "blame" for the fire will be determined later. Maybe we will never know. Why? Because during the battle against the flames and in securing the building, evidence could have been lost and the origins of the first spark could now be hidden in the Columbia rain water system.
Read Karen Miller's "Business Loop fire destroys O'Reilly Auto Parts store" and check out the pictures taken by Megan May in her "PHOTO GALLERY: Fire destroys O'Reilly Auto Parts, damages other businesses."
Between this fire, the West Worley apartment fire and the crash that shut down Providence and Worley — which both occurred on March 30 — our firefighters and our police officers have been busy. Perhaps too busy. These men and women work their buns off keeping us safe. I don't think we, Columbia's fine residents, appreciate this fact as much as we can.
I am not a pessimist, but I do know danger lurks in every corner and usually stays there. However, when its ugly Lernaean Hydra-like head does appear, it's nice to know that the Fire Department, the various volunteer fire fighting companies in mid-Missouri, the Columbia Police Department and the Boone County Sheriff's Department are there to give a saving hand.
On behalf of all of my readers and those too lazy to buy a Missourian on Thursdays, please accept our deepest appreciation for what you do and how you do it. I have had many a firefighter in my classes at Columbia College, from Columbia Fire Department Fire Marshal Steven Sapp to the women and men on the front lines. I know more than a few police officers as well as Chief Ken Burton. They are all of the best stock.
David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics.