Unbroken Union, Part 2: The day after

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Somehow, some way, there were no deaths or major injuries reported as a result of the Union Street fire. That was the good news. Still, dozens of residents were displaced and needed immediate help. Numerous businesses suffered damage or were a complete loss — Jack Neal Floral, Smoke Zone, The Union bar, Jackie O’s, Kismet, Uptown Dog and a rental office located inside the old Campus Sundry building. Many employees found themselves out of a job.

Officials from OU stepped in the morning after the fire to assist the tenants. Thousands of dollars poured into an online fundraiser to help the employees.

Within days, Union Street business owners were determined to rebuild the uptown block. Anxiety gave way to optimism and hope.

You can read Part 1 of this oral history here. Part 2, seen here, appears in the Wednesday, Nov. 20 newspaper on Page A1.

Firefighting

The fire was first reported at around 4 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2014. By morning, firefighters had contained the blaze.

10 a.m. — The fire is finally contained to The Union bar at 18 W. Union St.

OU Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones: “I got the call early in the morning from (OU Police Chief) Andrew Powers, which is pretty normal for crises that are police-related. I just remember him saying there’s a big fire, it’s affecting several different apartments, there’s firemen there, it doesn’t look like any students are injured. I came into Baker (University Center), and on my way in, I tried to call a couple of the staff who worked (at) Baker. I was able to get one and he came with his wife and we opened Baker.”

Cecily Sexton, Apartment Tenant: “We just sat outside for awhile and kept checking social media to see what was going on. We went to Baker to get out of the cold and my friend got his car to take him back to his house and we slept for a bit. I woke up to a whole lot of voicemails and texts and everyone calling to make sure we were OK. My parents were freaking out because they hadn’t heard from me because we were trying to sleep.”

Hall-Jones: “A lot of people didn’t have anything. They didn’t have glasses, didn’t have shoes. Think about waking up in the middle of the night by firefighters. There’s a fire and you just get out and grab what you can. Some people grabbed cell phones, but some didn’t have anything.”

Sexton: “I had some friends walk me back over and see what happened and that’s where we realized we had nothing. All I had brought out was the clothes on my body, and my cell phone, and a blanket. I had no keys to my car, no way to buy food in the morning, so it was a big shock and very scary.”

Athens Fire Chief Robert Rymer: “(Business owners) just lost their homes, their business. The students that lived upstairs, they just lost everything they had. Some were able to deal with it well, some not so much. A fire is a large loss. It takes a toll on your psyche ... It’s not like losing a loved one but it’s still a traumatic event that you just suffered through.”

Natasha Neal, Co-Owner of Jack Neal Floral: “We had just been doing this for so long. We wondered what we were going to do; if we were going to start over, or go find jobs, or are we going to be able to reopen.”

Hall-Jones: “Students were kind of straggling in (to Baker Center), I remember pajamas and people with blankets over them. I remember one student had a cute onesie with the feeties. It’s so weird the things I remember.”

Martha Compton, then-OU Dir. of Community and Social Responsibility: “One of my favorite moments was when (Then-VP for Student Affairs Ryan) Lombardi was going through one of the donation bins. I shouldn’t laugh, but it was just Athens in a nutshell. Somebody had put an unopened beer can and put a post-it note on it that said, ‘For an of-age Bobcat in need’ with a little smiley face. It made me laugh that they put ‘of-age.’ We didn’t put that out with the donations, obviously. But even in a stressful situation people are still finding ways to lighten the mood and bring a smile to peoples’ faces.”

Hall-Jones: “We had a student who had a library book that he lost. He said it was an OHIO Link book, but we said ‘It’ll be fine, we’ll work with the library, do you know the name?’ He said it was ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.’ ... I’m a really big Harry Potter fan and I have the whole set, so I went home that night and took my “Goblet of Fire” book and wrote a note to him. I just wanted him to know that he needed to own the book, and I wanted him to have mine ... I never replaced it. It’s just those little things, like the pieces of humanity that bring people together in that kind of tragedy.”

APD Lt. Anthony Fish: “By the time the sun came up, we had officers with headaches, they were freezing cold and suffering some effects of smoke inhalation. Oddly enough, I had none of those effects. I think because I had been a cigarette smoker for 30 years, it never affected me as much. I didn’t get the headaches, I didn’t get the tingling of my fingers like the other guys were getting. The hospital kept me for about six hours.”

Ladder truck

Fire crews remained at the scene for many hours.

Art Oestrike, Owner of Jackie O’s: “I knew going to bed on Sunday night we don’t have a kitchen, and the public houses are in some sort of state I’m not aware of. I’m not able to see it. It’s just immediately gnawing. I’m thinking, ‘how are we going to help people that are now out of jobs?’ But we have to figure out what we have and how to move forward. It’s just a lot of unknowns.”

Neal: “It was a lot harder for (my husband) than it was for me because this is his family business, so he grew up in the flower shop, and especially in that location. After school, being there every weekend. It was also a big memory of his father, who is Jack, who had passed long before the fire, but that was another loss for him. (My husband) related the flower shop to his relationship with his father. It was a lot harder on him.”

Chief Rymer: “With so many buildings involved, it’s about trying to find the point of origin. We may not be able to go over somewhere and say, ‘This is exactly what caused it.’ I think I dealt with 10 different investigators from 10 different insurance companies that came there. They collaborated together … I don’t think it ever has been determined what the cause was determined to be.”

Peter Couladis, Building Owner: “When we got back into town, we contacted our insurance company and had to go through looking at what happened with the other buildings. We had to go on top of the Chipotle building to view the damage from there. But everyone was fortunate; we didn’t have any apartments in our building. They were lucky nobody got hurt with the students who lived above the other buildings.”

Fire Storefront

A destroyed storefront is seen the morning after the devastating fire on Union Street.

Chief Rymer: “We had one young lady who lost this violin that we were never able to find. It was a cherished belonging that we could not find. We looked and looked and looked, sifting through ashes and just couldn’t find it. We found one tuning key, sifting through all those ashes for a week afterward.”

Sexton: “All of my professors were very nice with everything, especially considering everything, and senior year when expectations are pretty high. One of my hardest school things was that all my notes were gone and we were in November so we had another few weeks and then exams, and that was just awful.”

Fire Courthouse

The Athens County Courthouse clocktower is barely visible through the smoke.

Chief Rymer: “These students lost their books and now they’ve got this research paper they’re in the middle of doing and it just burnt up. They lost everything. Imagine all that effort they put in all semester long and everything you’ve been working on the last three months is now gone.”

Sexton: “I’d say the coolest stuff we received was OU students provided a lot of OU wear. Losing all that stunk but having it all back was awesome because I felt like I was back at home and I felt like it was my clothes, so having that back was great. ... It makes you feel loved when you’re at such a low point, so it was awesome to have so many people reaching out.”

Lt. Fish: “They had a little first responders thank-you ceremony down at the Pigskin and they invited all of us who were at the fire and spouses and city officials.”

Neal: “We didn’t know what to do. This is our only income. Neither of us works somewhere else. The flower shop was all we had. And for it all in one day to just be gone...we were off work for roughly three weeks before we were able to find a new location and do a very small reopening. We weren’t able to just replace everything so we were starting on such a small scale, like just a handful of vases and a flower order. We didn’t even have plants for a month.”

Several fundraisers were posted online in the immediate aftermath of the fire. One of them, started by Pete Schooner, raised over $23,000 in just a few days to benefit the affected employees.

Oestrike: “A whole bunch of the business owners on the street got together to try and talk about how to move forward, and there was a GoFundMe page. We didn’t know what that was going to turn into, but a lot of people have a lot of feelings throughout both the university and the city, so money started rolling in from people wanting to support and we were just trying to figure out how to allocate those funds and help people who were out of jobs.”

Chief Rymer: “Athens is such a close-knit community. Even with the ever-revolving population with new students coming in every year, it doesn’t take long for them to fit into the community where we’re all one community and all working together.”

Jack Neal Floral moved to a temporary location on Carpenter Street.

Neal: “For probably the first couple months, we didn’t know if we would make it. It was during what would normally be the busy holiday time between Thanksgiving and Christmas ... No one knew where we were and we couldn’t afford to tell them. We just had to take advantage of every newspaper article or every opportunity we could to get the word out there. It was very, very rough.”

Oestrike: “I didn’t think it would take as long as it did to go back to having a kitchen at 22 W. Union St. It took almost a year and a half. There were times where it would be like, ‘Why is nothing happening? Why isn’t this moving forward?’ But that’s kind of just the process of what happens after a fire … I’m an optimist and I felt pretty confident that we were gonna be OK.”

Neal: “Then we came across Valentine’s Day, which is supposed to be your biggest holiday of the year in a flower shop. And it was semi-successful. So we thought maybe we could get back to where we were once. After Mother’s Day, it was a sigh of relief. We knew we weren’t there yet, but I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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