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At about 5:45 last Wednesday morning, I saw a photograph of the flames.
They were bright and beautiful in their red, orange and gold deadliness, these flames. They were growing and scary and mesmerizing.
Joseph Vance, guitarist extraordinaire and downtown resident, awakened by the fearsome smell of smoke, went into the cold March morning and saw downtown Shelbyville on fire.
He did what residents do in 2013. He took his smartphone and snapped. He moved around. He saw the different angles. He pecked optimistic words to accompany those photographs on his Facebook page. He typed he thought the fire was under control. It wasn’t.
The fire was in control, taking over the 600 block on the south side of Main Street in a wind-aided siege, a hungry Hun, looking for breakfast, that took purchase in a restaurant and just kept eating.
It ate so much of the building at 618 Main Street, where apparently it started its ravenous buffet, that before most of us had had our breakfasts, that building came tumbling down, a 3-story pile of rust-colored bricks and the beams that since the early 1900s had held them in place.
That building crashed into its twin to the east and atop its shorter neighbor to the west, leaving a heap behind a façade with a dress hanging calmly in the window and a sign on the door that said, “Sorry, we’re closed.”
Closed, indeed and indefinitely.
You go to the computer to learn more. You drive to the scene and walk a block, through gummed traffic, around police tape, past television cameras and among onlookers and site-seers. You hear and see helicopters overhead.
You are bundled against the bitter north wind and stand perhaps a few dozen feet from a heat that only leaves you cold and lost.
This is like watching the twin towers. You can’t look away.
You watch the firefighters work with gusto and passion, their smoke-blackened protective gear and faces bobbing about unrelentingly, their powerful jets spewing thousands of gallons of water against the licking orange fingers that never seemed to die. You hear the pops and crackles and buckles.
You wait for the next building to tumble, just like you did the North Tower.
You never are prepared for such a sight, such a horrible rip into the landscape of your life. You have passed down Main Street a million times and taken these buildings for granted. The signs out front have flickered on and off, the names changed, the tenants evolved, and the colors blossomed and faded, but these buildings – well, they were our mileposts and lynchpins. They were supports and buttresses for our society and our sense of order.
You see the mayor, a good man who has Shelbyville so deeply imbued into his auricles and ventricles that he is at a loss for many words, a political leader, an affable quote machine, rendered almost mute by this somber moment, his life’s passion chewed up by this feasting fire as surely as are the bricks and mortar and wood and glass.
You see men huddled in blankets, dressed ill-prepared for the snow and blow. You recognize faces you saw in Fiesta Mexicana. You see an indefinable sadness in their eyes, because they have lost much more than their popular eatery,, having been robbed of the centrifugal force of their presence in our county.
You hear a counselor standing behind you. She’s on her cell phone, speaking to an insurance agent in hopeful tones. She wishes that records and files and data and mementoes could be rescued from her office. But they can’t. Nothing will escape this fire except for where the 100-year-old buildings had walls to prevent just an eventuality. Only the rubble can be mined later.
Across the street from the destruction, McKinley’s Deli has opened its doors early as a refugee center. Three of the four men who were awakened in a near-death moment sit there, sipping coffee, trying to stay warm, fighting to understand how they were alive and their homes were dead.
The man who owned three of the four buildings moves around in devastated horror. He chats here and sits there. He can speak and tell you what he has seen and experienced, but he can’t explain what he has lost. A day later, he will return and stumble through the bricks, trying to retrieve the irretrievable.
These are buildings that no longer can be what they were. Fiesta Mexicana and Creative Spirits will rebuild somewhere, we believe, but these never will be the same storefronts that you had visited as a boy. The stairs you once climbed to a sporting goods store maybe won’t be back. The office where your wife once worked and your children watched DVDs likely will be wrecked with all the rest. Nothing will stay the same. Our photos and our memories only will carry forth these proud structures.
We had thought these buildings would preserve our heart-tugging memories. What we learn is that they are as fragile as are our skin and bones, that history must be transmitted, embraced and communicated and not simply left to stand monumentally in a cloister of commerce.
Downtown Shelbyville has a gap-toothed smile today. There will be more dental work before it can be restored, a surgical process that will outlast so many of us who have loved this city.
New buildings will be constructed. New history will be written. New hopes will be fostered.
These are the ashes we scrape up from the flames that destroyed this piece of downtown Shelbyville.