Residents of Aaron Street watched the former American of Martinsville plants burn Monday, grateful that their homes were spared.
The buildings on Aaron and Broad streets caught fire around 5:30 p.m. Monday. Within the hour, walls on one building collapsed as explosions could be heard from inside the structure.
The scene attracted spectators at Cleveland Avenue, in the parking lots around the Department of Motor Vehicles office on Starling Avenue and the city recycling bins on Market Street, as well as on Aaron Street, before the roads were blocked by city officials.
Jim Peverall of Aaron Street lives one metal building away from the fire. Normally, winds from the west would have blown the fire toward his house, but the nor’easter storm turned them away Monday, he said as he stood in Aaron Street watching the blaze.
“Here we go again,” he said he thought, referring to a massive fire that burned another former American of Martinsville property off Starling Avenue in 1995.
When Peverall first saw the fire, smoke was on the roof of one of the factory buildings. He had no idea what caused the blaze, but he said workers had been in the building for the previous three or four days.
As a former firefighter and paramedic for 20 years, he said he has a good perspective on what’s important in times like that.
“No. 1, you take care of yourself,” he said. Then he packed things that he cannot replace — photographs and similar personal things — in his car, which he moved away from the scene. He was not worried about clothes, furniture and other items.
For Peverall, the fire was an “inconvenience.” But, he added, “I hope no firefighters are hurt” in the blaze.
“What’s sad” is that the fire took away an icon in the area, a plant where a lot of furniture had been made and many hard-working people were employed, he said.
Across the street from Peverall’s home, Mildred Gilley and her son, David Gilley, watched the fire from their front door. Homes on the street had no electricity at that time, but their house still offered some warmth compared to the bitter temperatures outside.
Temperatures had fallen into the lower 20s by early evening, and as the night wore on, roads and streets became icy.
Mildred Gilley had seen the smoke from a window in the home where she has lived for 37 years. Like Peverall, she feared that the wind could have blown the fire up to her home, but it did not happen.
She said she planned to stay in the house Monday night because she had nowhere else to go.
Across the street, Peggy Joyce had seen the dark cloud from her window and thought a storm was coming up. But it was smoke, and before her son, James Grogan, could call 911 to report the fire, they heard a fire engine.
It was scary, Joyce said, as she stood in the street and watched the flames. The heat could be felt from there.
Joyce packed what she could in her car and was prepared to leave her home if needed.
“The fire department did a good job keeping it (the fire) off” people’s homes, Grogan said. “I hope no one is hurt.”
At the corner of Aaron and Starling Avenue, Teressa Walsh was working at Walsh’s Chicken and More, which she co-owns with her husband, Mitchell, when she heard the explosions and saw fire trucks go down Aaron Street.
Walsh said she was “blessed” that the restaurant did not lose power. She said that although the fire killed business for a while, business ultimately picked back up.
Several customers called to see if the restaurant was open, and customers and friends said they had seen the smoke in Collinsville and Ridgeway.
By around 7:30 p.m., things had quieted down. Walsh planned to take about 48 pieces of cooked chicken and biscuits to the firefighters on the scene.
Martinsville City Councilman Mark Stroud relayed that message to the firefighters. He had come out to check on the firefighters and see if they needed anything Monday night.
“There’s nothing they are lacking,” he said, adding, “It’s mighty cold out there.”
He said at that time, the firefighters were making sure the blaze did not spread across Aaron and Broad streets.
He said he understood that furniture was stored in one of the buildings and a wholesale business used another building.
When Mitchell Walsh learned of the fire, he had a common reaction — “Deja vu,” his wife said.
He was referring to the 1995 fire when another former American of Martinsville plant burned near where the Department of Motor Vehicles office is now on Starling Avenue. That blaze also was dramatic and visible for miles.
That furniture plant had been remodeled into an antique store owned by Jim Haskins and Ray Lambert. It was a total loss, Haskins said Monday.
Retired Martinsville fire marshal Donald Draper Sr. remembered that fire Monday as he stood in the crowd on Starling Avenue watching the blaze roar.
“It brings back old memories,” he said, and the excitement of fighting such a fire. “It’s in your blood.”