UPDATED 11/10/10 11:12 a.m.
LOCKPORT, Ill. (CBS) – An extra-alarm fire in downtown Lockport has left a gaping hole in the town’s central business district.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya Reports
As CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli reports, the three-alarm fire broke out just after 2 a.m. in a single-story building at 923-29 S. State St. More than 70 firefighters from more than half a dozen departments responded.
Witnesses said the flames shot up 80 feet into the air.
“The flames got crazier and crazier,” said Chazarae Musaraca, who lives in an apartment across the street. She and her roommate were up at 2 a.m. when the fire started with a bang.
Vicky Hicks was outside at the time, and saw and heard an explosion, which she described as “very very loud. It sounded, I would probably say, like a cannon blowing off right in front of your face.”
Musaraca was upstairs and also heard the blast.
“I turned around and walked away, and I heard this loud noise, and I looked and I thought someone crashed into the building, and then this big black cloud came and it sucked back into the building, and there were curtains in the street. The windows totally blew out of those buildings,” Musaraca said.
The firefighters who responded saved lives, but the same can’t be said of at least four businesses.
Destroyed were the American Family Insurance agency at 925 S. State St. where the fire started, Weber’s Denim Shop at 929 S. State St., Stephenson Photography & Framing at 927 S. State St., and Lockport Lanes Bowling Alley at in the basement of the building at 923 S. State St.
The fire also spread to the building to the south, which housed Lockport Furniture Upholstery at 931 S. State St. and residences above, Lockport Fire Chief Dave Skoryi said.
Skoryi said a neighboring building that was once Lockport’s original City Hall also sustained some heat damage.
Donald and Anna Henderson are the owners of Weber’s Denim, and they say they lost their family livelihood.
Anna Henderson was awakened by a call from her alarm company and was driving to the business, when she suddenly realized this was much worse than a burglary.
“I ran down from about six blocks away, and all you could see were flames probably a good 80 feet high, well over the treetops,” she said. “(I thought) there goes everything, there goes everything.”
Donald Henderson says has the denim shop has been in the community since the mid-1970s. He said he’s “just numb. Everything me and my family worked for is in there.”
Mary Pierson and her husband are the owners of Stephenson Photography. She told Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya, “We didn’t have backups. It’s all gone, everything. Years worth of memories and pictures, gone.”
While the Hendersons and Piersons lost businesses, two people living in an apartment above the upholstery business nearly lost their lives. Clouds of suffocating smoke quickly seeped into the apartment, and the residents said two people inside awakened but couldn’t find their way out.
The firefighter who made the rescue said he had to work by sense of touch and feel, since the smoke was so thick as to render visibility nearly zero.
The firefighter opened the door, and followed the screams to find the two victims.
“I heard screaming, went to the building just to the south up to the second floor, opened the front door,” said the responding firefighter, Joe Casagrande. “I heard screaming, reached inside. There was a lady walking down the hallway. I reached out, grabbed her, pulled her out, led her down the stairs. Her husband followed. We got them down to safety.”
The victims were rescued through the front door of the building and treated with oxygen outside, but declined transport to hospitals, firefighters said.
The fire is on the same block as a fire on April 1, 2008. That fire gutted the Towpath Hotel, 933 S. State St., and took the life of a woman inside, identified as Minnette Edmon, 45. The hotel, which dates from 1895, has been boarded up ever since.
On July 15, 2008, another fire broke out on the next block and gutted the Martini Bar and Grill, 1026 S. State St., and an apartment above it. Weber’s Denim’s old location was next door to that building, and Donald Henderson said in published reports said that fire was why he moved the store.
And back in 1895, a fire took out the whole historic block.
CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli, Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya and the Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.