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Downtown fire was accidental

"Thawing of refrigerator" triggered blaze, Fire Chief says

WATKINS GLEN, Oct. 19 -- The fire that gutted the Village Variety Shop on North Franklin Street and caused extensive damage throughout the old Cole-Royce Building Sunday night was accidental in nature, fire officials say.

The fire, which started in the rear of the Variety Shop about 6 p.m., was caused by "the thawing of a refrigerator," Fire Chief Dominick Smith said in a press release. He provided no further details.

Building owner Jim Guild has said the building, which dates back to 1925, is insured, although he wasn't sure for how much. Assistant Chief Jud Smith -- prior to the chief's announcement -- said the next step in the process will be to involve the insurance company, and have it provide a structural engineer to determine what the best course would be to make the building safe for commercial use again.

Before that happens, all of the burned and smoke- or water-damaged debris will have to be removed. The assistant chief said that if the items were insured, then an insurance company would pay the cost of that removal. If not, the cost falls on the business owner.

Linda Henneman, proprietor of Yesterday's Paradise adjacent to and above the Village Variety Shop, has said her items -- reportedly heavily damaged -- were not insured. They had been rejected by three different insurance agencies she approached. There was no official word on whether Village Variety Shop proprietor Ed Peters' merchandise was insured.

"There's no risk of collapse," said Jud Smith about the building. "But it will have to be cleared out and cleaned up and brought up to code." Also necessary: repairs where holes exist in the flooring of the second story. "There's one big hole," he said, "and another smaller one."

The fire department arrived at the scene within a couple minutes of the call, he said, "and we wanted to save as much of the building as possible. But our goal was to keep the flames from walking down the block."

First, though, firefighters encountered Peters' wife, who thought her husband was still inside. When they entered the building, Jud Smith said, "we encountered books and shelves falling over, and the ceiling coming down, almost pinning me. We thought that rather than be the story ourselves, we'd better get out of there." As it turned out, Peters had exited through the rear door of the building, reentered briefly while thinking his wife was still inside -- sustaining minor injuries in the attempt -- and got out again.

He was treated at Schuyler Hospital for what fire officials said were minor cuts and burns, and was released. He was reportedly back at the scene in the morning, although access to the building was blocked off by police tape and plywood. The tape in the front of the building was wrapped tightly against the exterior until early afternoon, when police -- at the request of Mayor Judy Phillips -- extended the no-access point to include the sidewalk in front. Phillips said she was concerned someone might be injured by falling debris, and noted that there was also glass on the sidewalk from the night before.

Photos in text:

From top: The front of the Cole-Royce building, a display window in the Village Variety Shop, and sports cards that had been part of the shop's merchandise. They were strewn about the parking area at the rear of the structure..

Firefighters shoot water into the interior of the Village Variety Shop after smashing a window.

Blaze strikes 2 Glen stores

Fire guts Village Variety Shop; Yesterday's Paradise sustains heavy damage; cause being investigated

WATKINS GLEN, Oct. 19 -- Fire that started at the rear of the Village Variety Shop, 313 N. Franklin St. in Watkins Glen Sunday evening gutted the store and caused extensive damage in the adjacent Yesterday's Paradise.

Nineteen fire departments -- all nine in Schuyler County and five each from Chemung and Yates counties -- responded to the alarm, many arriving quickly on the scene as the blaze was prevented from spreading to other downtown buildings.

"The call came in about 6 p.m., and we brought it under control in 45 minutes or an hour," said Watkins Glen Fire Chief Dominick Smith. "The guys did a good job."

The fire's thick smoke could be seen from distant hills. Up close, it was mostly black and came out of the building in dense rolls.

The blaze was confined to one building -- the old Cole-Royce Hall built in 1925, which has housed a ballroom, Cole's Pharmacy, the Chedzoy Furniture Store and, for the past two decades, businesses dealing in antiques, memorabilia and (in the case of the Village Variety Shop) coins.

The building has been owned by businessman Jim Guild since 1989, according to Kyle Chedzoy, whose family owned it beforehand. Said Chedzoy: "The embalming room for the 'Royce Brothers Furniture and Undertaking' business used to be in the back of the building, where the fire probably broke out."

Guild, standing across the street Sunday night with other onlookers, said the building is insured, "but I'm not sure if it's fully insured. I'll have to find out."

There was no insurance in place for Yesterday's Paradise, an antique and memorabilia store that occupied half of the Cole-Royce ground floor and all of the second floor, along with storage space in a third-level balcony.

"That's the end of it; it's all over," said Yesterday's Paradise proprietor Linda Henneman. "Everything I have is tied up in merchandise. I have nothing left." Henneman, who lives about 12 miles from Watkins Glen, arrived at the scene after the fire had been brought under control -- although hot spots kept popping up, including fire on the second floor and balcony.

Henneman has been involved in the business since 1992, when she rented space on the second floor from then-proprietor Larry Hetherington, who departed in 1999. She was then partners with Ralph Hetherington, and has been running the shop since 2002.

She said she had tried to get her merchandise insured by three different insurance companies, each of which turned her down. "It's because it's used goods," she said, adding that she assumed the Village Variety Shop proprietor, Ed Peters, was in the same boat.

She said she didn't know the overall value of everything in the building, noting that paperwork pertaining to that value was kept in the store. It was unclear how much -- or perhaps if all -- of her inventory was ruined, although firefighters noted that "we poured an awful lot of water in." That, and heavy smoke, did not leave anyone optimistic

Village Variety's Peters, meanwhile, was taken to Schuyler Hospital for treatment of injuries he sustained shortly after the fire broke out. Officials at the scene said Peters and his wife were present in the store when the fire began, and that Peters, after exiting through the rear door, reentered the building, thinking his wife was inside. He sustained what one observer said were burns and cuts. His wife, it turned out, had exited the building through the front door.

Chief Smith indicated that he needed to talk to Peters to help determine the fire's cause. The chief said firefighters would be remaining "all night" to monitor and clean up, and to try to pinpoint a cause of the blaze.

Observers gathered along the sidewalks across from the fire, and were repeatedly moved back by deputies. However, those with a stake in the matter -- such as Guild and Henneman, along with their friends -- kept a vigil as the night progressed past 9 p.m. and the temperature dove.

Firefighters closely examined the buildings next door to the Cole-Royce structure -- separated from it, one fire official said, only by brick walls. To the south is a building housing Ambrose & Shoemaker Real Estate and the Leslie School of Dance, on the corner of Franklin and Fourth Streets. To the north is the vacant News Room building, including its recently occupied apartment upstairs. There was no report on whether anyone was there at the time the fire broke out.

Chief Smith said damage in the Village Variety Shop was extensive, and included a collapsed ceiling. Other firefighters said it was simply gutted, with stacks of books and other memorabilia charred or waterlogged. The extent of damage in Yesterday's Paradise was not as clear, although the store sustained extensive smoke and water damage.

"The ground floor is pretty much gone" in each, Smith said, "although I think we can work with the second floor." However, flames could be seen popping up on both the second floor and balcony level -- resulting in high-pressure jets of water being used to douse them.

Media showed up from Elmira and Corning and Rochester, snapping photos and interviewing various onlookers. Among them was Louise O'Shaughnessy, who operates an antique store across the street from the two burned businesses.

"Eddie and Linda have worked their entire lives to put together their shops, and now the shops have literally gone up in flames," said O'Shaughnessy. "It's a terrible shame."

Photos in text:

Top: Firefighters watch as one of their members climbs a ladder to check out the second-floor interior.

Second: A fire official removes a Village Variety Shop display window so his men could hose the store's interior.

Third: Watkins Glen Fire Chief Dominick Smith talks to Yesterday's Paradise proprietor Linda Henneman.

Fourth: Odessa Fire Chief John Jelliff takes a brief breather.

Fifth: Firefighters at the front door of the Village Variety Shop.

Bottom: Building owner Jim Guild, back, was among the onlookers across the street from the fire. Here he is interviewed by Star-Gazette reporter Jeff Murray.

The fire's smoke as seen from Cass Road above the village.

Left: Firefighters head up the stairs of a building next door to the fire. At the top of the stairs is the Leslie School of Dance, which later announced it will be closed until further notice. Right: A firefighter pokes his head in a second-floor window of Yesterday's Paradise.


Fire officials discuss the situation outside the Village Variety Shop.

The Watkins Glen Fire Department's Robbie DeDominick was operating a truck ladder.

A hose at the end of a truck ladder blasts the second floor after flames broke out there.

Left: The building's 1925 dedication sign sits above second-floor windows. Right: A firefighter carries some debris from the Village Variety Shop.

A Horseheads firefighter climbs toward the roof.

Odessa firefighter Keith Pierce was among the many volunteers on hand. He is also mayor of the Village of Odessa.

Water pours into the third-floor balcony after fire was spotted there.

The north wall of the Village Variety Shop and its merchandise were charred.

Smoke periodically rolled out in thick waves.

Left: This photo was provided by Phil Barnes, who snapped it shortly after flames started licking out the back door of the Village Variety Shop. Right: This photo came from Kyle Chedzoy, who snapped it soon after firefighters arrived on the scene.





© The Odessa File 2009
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869