The precise cause of the fire last Friday that gutted an aging Wrightsville Beach retail shop will remain unknown. King’s Beachwear was too dangerously damaged for investigators to thoroughly examine the scene. However, Wrightsville Beach Fire Department Chief Glen Rogers said the origin wasn’t suspicious, with the electrical system thought, but not confirmed, to be the source of the three-alarm fire. Rogers had been on the job just 11 days.
More than 50 firefighters were on the scene throughout Friday afternoon, Rogers said, with about half of them coming from the Wilmington or New Hanover County fire departments. The fire caused between $500,000 and $700,000 in damage to the building, which was completely leveled by a backhoe on Friday evening as ladder trucks lit the scene and firemen continued to pour water on the smoldering remains.
The fire was first reported around noon over the telephone by an employee. By 2:30 p.m., fire crews from Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington were still battling the fire; the building was badly charred and the roof had collapsed.
The building owner, Cameron Keefer who lives on Crain Street, was alerted to the fire at 12:05 p.m. by Seagull Street resident Wayne Bland. Keefer did not return calls for comment.
Bland said he first saw flames at 12:04 p.m.
“I was working on Fayetteville Street and when I saw the smoke, I came running,” he said.
Bland and other neighbors praised the quick response by the fire department.
“This was an example of people being prepared. They were here in less than five minutes,” Bland said.
The business owner, Yoav Kohavi, said he opened his shop at around 10 a.m. and “everything was fine.” An employee called him about two hours later to inform him of the fire. Police said there were two employees at the store.
“They walked out right away, as soon as they saw smoke,” Kohavi said.
He said that an electrical unit may be to blame for the fire at the 21 East Salisbury St. shop.
“I think it’s coming from the corner from the electrical panel,” Kohavi said.
Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said there was a smaller fire at the location two years ago and that the electrical system had been updated since then. A nearby resident told the Lumina News that they saw a crew working on the electrical unit earlier in the day.
The store sells T-shirts, beachwear, water toys and other souvenirs. Kohavi said that the shop had just gotten a new shipment about an hour earlier. The shipment probably just added to the flames, officials said.
“It’s an old, old building,” said Capt. Valerie Blanton of the Wrightsville Beach Police Department. “And all the things they probably have ready for the summer season gave it fuel.”
However, town manager Tim Owens said that the wind direction helped keep the fire from spreading to other buildings or nearby houses. The winds were estimated to be between 15-20 knots.
“It is a really good thing there is nothing around it. It is good the wind is blowing that way,” Owens said.
New public works director Buck Squires was on the scene early, watching the fire for a portion of the day from Seagull Street along with other town officials who came and went.
“No, we will not run out of water. We have every pump we own up and running right now,” Squires said. Later in the day he commented, “The system should be well cleaned by now. When they first turned the hoses on, rust came out.”
Approximately two hours into fighting, Rogers said, “People were in there. It was open for business, they saw smoke. There was not much we could do. It is an open frame building. The SBI is here, we already have the fire investigators here. They are doing preliminary interviews.”
The Wrightsville Beach Fire Department pre-plans for fires at many of the buildings in the town, Rogers said, and they had a plan in place for King’s, which helped the department attack the blaze. For instance, they knew going in that there were no liquid propane tanks on the premise, which could have caused explosions and created dangers for the firefighters.
“They were planning behind the scenes and they knew this building,” Rogers said.
There were no injuries to firefighters, who were rotated into action in between “rehab” sessions to cool off and recuperate, Rogers said. They were helped by the community, who brought out food and refreshments for the firefighters.
Rogers said King Neptune Restaurant, Jimmy’s at Red Dogs and the Carolina Yacht Club all donated food and drink to the responders, with the firefighters newly formed “auxiliary” also making contributions and helping organize the relief effort.
“This was an all-star team; every person knew where to go. The direction (by leadership) was awesome.This is one of the best I have ever seen a department work,” Bland said.
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