Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of a fire early Tuesday morning that destroyed four buildings in downtown Vandalia.
Cages, Donaldson Carpet, Gathe’s Tax and Accounting Service, and Dennis Gerkin’s State Farm Insurance Agency were destroyed in that blaze, which kept Vandalia firemen busy through much of the day.
Two investigators with the Office of the State Fire Marshal visited the scene on Tuesday, and a determination on the cause had not been made by press time on Wednesday.
Twenty-eight members of the Vandalia Volunteer Fire Department were assisted by 11 Brownstown firefighters and six Ramsey firefighters in battling the fire, which a state fire investigator believes started in the rear of the Cages building at 215 S. Third St.
An employee at Circle K reported seeing smoke coming from Cages at 1:06 a.m.
Upon their arrival, within four minutes of getting the call, Vandalia police and firefighters saw heavy smoke coming from Cages.
Vandalia Fire Chief Merle Adermann said firefighters initially believed that they would be extinguishing a fire that was within Cages, but quickly noticed that smoke was also coming from Donaldson’s Carpet.
In making an assessment of the situation, Adermann said, they quickly determined – due to heavy smoke – that they would not be going inside the buildings to attack the blaze.
“We knew from the get-go that it would be an exterior attack,” he said.
Adermann called for assistance from the Brownstown Fire Department as soon as the VVFD arrived on the scene, and then asked for aid from the Ramsey department within 10 minutes.
The BFD members set up their engine at a hydrant at Second and Gallatin streets, and RFD members were called to stand by in the event of another fire call in town.
Vandalia firefighters hooked up to three other hydrants – at Third and Gallatin, Fourth and Gallatin and Fourth and Johnson, – to get enough water to supply about 1,500 feet of hose connected to handlines, the waterway on its ladder truck and a deck gun on top of a fire engine.
Adermann said that they realized in a short time that they would need more water pressure, so he contacted Public Works Director John Moyer.
Moyer and Assistant Public Works Director Tom Henrichsmeyer boosted the water pressure from 50 pounds to 85 pounds by “putting the high side” of the city’s water distribution system into the low side.
Marty Huskey, superintendent of the city’s water treatment plant, estimated that firefighters used about 1 million gallons to extinguish the blaze.
Adermann said that firefighters were hampered by the heavy volume of smoke and the lower water pressure early on, and that a big factor in the spread of the fire was the buildings themselves.
“The age of the buildings, and how they were built back then, was definitely a factor,” he said.
“There were a lot of open voids between the buildings – that gave the fire a place to go,” he said.
Also, he said, “Every building in that black a common wall.
“Cages is a one-story building, and once the fire got through the roof, it went high into the building at Donaldson’s.
“And from Donaldson’s, it went straight to the roof of Gathe’s and then straight to the roof at Gerkin’s,” Adermann said. “There was nothing to hold it back.
“The fire came across Gathe’s roof, got into the back of Gerkin’s at the courtyard and took his building.”
Firefighters stopped the blaze at the west wall of Gerkin’s building. The building to the west of the insurance agency, which houses Vandalia GMAC Real Estate, sustained substantial smoke and water damage.
As for monetary damage, Adermann said, “I wouldn’t even begin to guess.”
Some Vandalia firefighters were at the scene through 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Other members, along with retired firefighters Andy Craig and Randy Edwards, began returning to the fire station by 8 a.m. to begin cleaning hose, air tank masks and other equipment, and refilling air tanks.
Those cleaning efforts continued off and on until about 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
City police officers continued to monitor the scene for rekindles throughout the evening, and a check at about 6 p.m. on Wednesday resulted in a crew of firefighters returning to the scene for about 30 minutes.
Adermann has been a member of the VVFD since 1974, and he believes it’s one of the largest fires he’s battled in those 36 years.
“I’d rank it second or third, due to the fact that it was almost half a block,” he said, recalling fires at Joe’s Never Inn at Fourth and Gallatin streets, Transportation Equipment, St. James Lutheran Church and Bethel Baptist Church.
At the top of his list is the Vandalia Warehouse fire in 1981.
Business owners who lost their buildings were quickly working to keep their operations going even as firefighters battled the flames.
Dennis Gerkin said mid-morning on Tuesday that he had contacted State Farm headquarters, and that insurance company was preparing to send him a computer system fully loaded with all of his agency’s information.
Gerkin was already looking for a building at which to set up shop, either in the downtown business district or on the north end of town. He said some building owners had already contacted him with offers to help him out.
Pat Gathe said she was continuing to operate her tax and accounting business at her home, taking customers’ calls on her home phone, 283-0401.
She said on Tuesday afternoon that while she’s working to keep her business going, she’s waiting to see if anything can be salvaged from her business.
In addition to records, Gathe said the building contained some historical photographs and some antiques, including pieces from her and husband Kenny’s families.
“There is all kinds of stuff in there,” she said.
“We just have to wait until we can get into the building. We’ll keep working out of our home until we decide what we are going to do, see what our options are,” Gathe said.
Art Martin, owner of Donaldson’s Carpet, was continuing to operate his business on Tuesday, thanks in part to competitor and Vandalia fireman Tom DePaolo.
“We are definitely going to be back in business,” said Martin, who has since 1996 owned the flooring business started by his father and uncle.
“We’re looking for a building where we can set up a storefront, and we’re hoping to have something by the end of this week,” Martin said.
While Martin lost a substantial inventory in the fire, he was still serving customers on the day of the blaze.
“As luck would have it, we had trucks coming in the day of the fire, and we are fortunate enough to be in a small town, with competitors who are helping out.
“Tom (DePaolo) allowed us to have our stuff to delivered to his store and help us out where he can,” Martin said. “That’s really big of him.
“I’m sending out installers every day,” he said.
Martin said he’s working to contact customers currently using his business, as well as obtaining samples and displays for people in the market for new flooring.
“It’ll be a few days before we can set up a storefront, but we’re still doing as much as we can right now,” Martin said.
Because of the smoke and water damage to its home, Vandalia GMAC Real Estate began moving its business documents out on Tuesday morning. Cleaning crews were on the scene by late morning.
Owner/broker Sandy Michel said that her real estate agency will be temporarily operating out of the former home of Land of Lincoln Credit Union at 522 W. Gallatin St.