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One of Shelbyville’s most popular restaurants lies buried beneath a pile of rubble today, the headline victim of a devastating fire that spared four lives but killed four historic buildings in the city’s downtown.
Fiesta Mexicana, an often-packed eatery at 614 Main Street, and its newly remodeled expansion space next door were the centerpiece casualties of a blaze that erupted around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, chasing four residents from their upstairs apartments, consuming the Creative Spirits Counseling Service, bringing down two buildings and heavily damaging two others that contained a thrift shop and a vacant office.
More than 50 firefighters from Shelbyville and Shelby County fought the blaze against snowy, subfreezing temperatures and a biting breeze out of the north in an effort to save the buildings, as dozens of onlookers, support personnel and TV cameras and helicopters witnessed an inconceivable spectacle.
Despite their efforts, the building at 616 Main, the ground floor of which owners of Fiesta Mexicana had remodeled recently, collapsed after about two hours of aggressive flames, much of its rubble piling onto the roof and walls of the former Fat Tony’s at 618 Main and the former Shelby County Life office at 620, leaving the former almost certain for demolition and the latter perhaps uninhabitable as well.
The fire continued through the morning to chew through the building that housed Fiesta Mexicana’s main dining room, and finally in early afternoon fire officials determined the building had become unstable and would have to be razed, leaving by Thursday afternoon a 2-building gash and pile of bricks and rubble in the heart of the shopping district.
“It’s just terrible,” Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty said somberly. “You try so hard to revitalize downtown, and then something like this happens. I’m just glad there were no injuries.”
Escaping the fires
Indeed the presence of smoke alarms and the rousing efforts of Shelbyville Police Officer Kelly Malone, who saw the flames, called in the alarm and helped four men escape the blaze. Three of them huddled across the street in McKinley’s Deli, operated by the Red Cross as sort of a support center, having escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs, some not even in shoes and one with a dog in his jacket.
“We heard the smoke alarms about four-thirty and then the police came knocking on our door,” said Larry Snider, who shares a room with Mark Caudill. “We got up and grabbed our stuff and pretty much got out of there as quick as we could.”
Snider brought with him his 4-year-old miniature Doberman, who sat quietly inside Snider’s jacket as the man told the story of their escape.
“We didn’t smell no smoke or nothing. We just heard the alarms,” he said. “We just got out of there with what we could grab.”
Snider said he had lived in the apartment about 5 or 6 months, but Caudill said he has been there a year, a second stint after having lived their for 15 years previously. He did manage to get out with his cellular telephone.
“He couldn’t leave that behind,” Snider said, managing a bit of a smile.
None of the residents had to be rescued, although Caudill said he did spend some time in an ambulance. “It was the smoke,” he said. “And I have lung problems.”
Adrian Cruz Valasquez was an employee of Fiesta Mexicana, and he said through an interpreter that he only had lived in the apartment for two months. He said he didn’t hear any alarms.
“About four a.m. I smelled smoke,” he said with the interpreter’s help. “The others woke me up. I didn’t see flames.”
Valasquez, a native of Mexico, said he escaped with only what he was wearing and didn’t know what he would do next. “My boss [at Fiesta] is going to help me,” he said.
The name of the fourth resident was unavailable.
On Thursday, Snider and Caudill joined Reynolds to dig through the debris behind 618 Main. Asked if they were finding anything useful, Snider said, “Yeah, we’ve found some things.”
The damaged buildings
Three of the buildings, which most recently had housed five businesses, are owned by Jim Reynolds, former proprietor of Sam’s Place in the building at 618 Main. LeAnn LaMar owns the old house at 620, which was the least damaged. Reynolds said it was a devastating morning as he watched the fire take away pieces of real estate into which he had poured a sizable amount of time and money..
“I’m past crying,” ” he said. “I had that building [the one that collapsed] for thirty years. I had the safest building in town.”
Shelbyville Fire Department arson investigator Brandon Woods and Shelbyville Police Detective Sgt. Bruce Gentry are doing a joint investigation into the cause of the blaze, but as of Thursday, they have not detected a cause.
“Earlier today [Wednesday] we were contacted by Kevin Dunn with the Kentucky State Police,” SFD Assistant Chief Chris Spaulding said. “We are pretty much handling everything internally here. They are taking interviews from everybody associated with those businesses. We can’t speculate on the cause right now.”
Reynolds said he had heard that the fire started upstairs above the restaurant but didn’t know why or how but suspected that it could have spread through attic space. “The fire inspectors can take care of that,” he said.
Cassandra Harris, who operates Creative Spirits, was on the phone with her insurance agent as she watched from the parking lot next to the Shelby County History Center, where most of the TV cameras were set up.
“My alarm system went off about five a.m.,” she said. “This is devastating. I’m just wondering what I can save and what I have insured.”
Firefighters kept the fire from moving into adjacent buildings and businesses, although there was some damage to an old theater building that now houses Computer Hawks in the front and is a warehouse for Wakefield-Scearce Gallery in the back.
“We had mostly roof damage,” Gallery owner Pat Burnett said. “And the wall right next to it [the fire], we’re going to have a structural engineer check it out. Most of the inside contents could have smoke damage, but as far as fire and water, we didn’t have any.”
Burnett said that the building, which is upwards to 30,000 square feet, had some items that smoke could affect negatively, such as upholstery.
“It could have been a lot worse,” he said. “We’re just thankful that no one was injured. We thank the lord for that.”
Smoke also infiltrated Tracy’s Home Furnishings and other businesses just east, and power was knocked out. Clouds of smoke spread by the wind hung over businesses and residences on Henry Clay and Bradshaw streets, just south of the fire.
Usually bustling sidewalks downtown were desolate except for spots crowded with onlookers, who snapped photos on their cell phones and posted them on social media. Yellow crime-scene tape stretched all along both sides and ends of the block between 6th and 7th streets, and eastbound traffic was rerouted at 7th.
The street was blocked until noon by firefighters and equipment – others were deployed on the back sides of the buildings, along Clay Street – but eventually was replaced by a backhoe from Gray-Kat Environmental Services, which came into knock down the still smoldering rubble of the building that had housed the Mexican restaurant. That process ignited a further blaze that had to be extinguished.
Many took to social media to express a great sense of loss and sorrow over the fate of everyone involved, and many sent good wishes and prayers to the owners and employees of Fiesta Mexicana, saying they hoped the restaurant could be rebuilt and reopen.
Almost every night the small dining room and bar were filled by patrons, who sipped Margaritas as bustling servers carried out steaming dishes lined up their arms. Coincidentally, on Tuesday night, Shelby County Fire Chief Bobby Cowherd had celebrated his birthday in the restaurant.
Just hours after that, its owner Hilario Moran stood wrapped in a blanket as he watched the firefighters work. He didn’t say much before walking away, but a companion said he was glad that everyone was OK.
Other restaurant employees dropped by to watch, some of them gathering in McKinley’s to see the wrecking process in the afternoon. No one was allowed to go into the rubble to check damage or retrieve belongings, but firefighters retrieved some mementoes that they placed along the street.
“Everyone who worked there is so warm and friendly,” Shelbyville resident Lynn Whitaker wrote on Facebook. “I think that was a big part of the draw. Prayers for them all.”
Others, like Hardesty – “We hope we can get it replaced,” he said – were saddened by the sudden gaping hole that had been eaten into the historic and neat buildings that give the city core much of its character. These structures over centuries have housed the Kentucky Utilities office, a pool room, clothing stores, offices, a sporting good store, music shops and dozens and dozens of other businesses.
"The date of the buildings, as best I can tell, are right around the turn of the century," Shelby County Historic District Coordinator Fred Rogers said.
"My first impression, while it's tragic to lose historic buildings like this, a loss also presents an new opportunity. We now have an opportunity to do something different. We have a say about the infill and how it affects our downtown. It's definitely a loss, but you to look at it as an opportunity now."
Wrote former resident Jim Bonner on Facebook: “It's so sad to see even part of our historic Main Street go up in flames. Since moving away in the late ‘80s, that dear, sweet old town where I grew up means even more to me than ever.”
Sentinel-News Staff Writers Todd Martin and Lisa King contributed to this report.