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Laundry eyed as cause of Hadley strip mall fire; investigators seeking witnesses

A Hadley firefighter crew with oxygen tanks waits to take a rotation in battling a fire that engulfed the Norwottuck Shops at 206 Russell St. (Route 9) on Sunday evening. The building was home to several businesses, among them Greggory's Pastry Shop, College Pro Computers, International Food Market and Mi Tierra restaurant.

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

A Hadley firefighter crew with oxygen tanks waits to take a rotation in battling a fire that engulfed the Norwottuck Shops at 206 Russell St. (Route 9) on Sunday evening. The building was home to several businesses, among them Greggory's Pastry Shop, College Pro Computers, International Food Market and Mi Tierra restaurant. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Investigators are focusing on the Hadley Coin-Op Laundromat as the source of the blaze that leveled the building, Jennifer Mieth, Department of Fire Services spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

“Claiming the laundry may help investigators pinpoint exactly where and how the fire started,” she said in a statement. Witnesses are asked to call the fire department at 584-0874.

The laundry was located in the rear of the building at 206 Russell St. that also housed about a dozen shops and restaurants and two apartments.

A collection of local, state and federal officials ,along with private crews, were busy working in and around the scene Tuesday, including Hadley Fire Chief Michael Spanknebel, public works employees and investigators with the state fire marshal’s office.

They were taking photographs and measurements of the charred remains of the Norwottuck Shoppes and washing down a burned area with a fire hose, while a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was interviewing witnesses on the perimeter of the site. Workers erected a chain-link fence along the sidewalk in front of rubble to secure the site while a public insurance adjuster and onlookers milled around watching the goings-on.

Some uninsured

Some of the businesses in the nook of mom-and-pop storefronts did not carry insurance and are struggling to decide what to do next.

“I lost everything there,” said Binh Nguyen, 29, who owned Kung Fu Wushu Academy at the rear of the complex. He started the business two years ago with a $10,000 loan and said carrying insurance was too cost-prohibitive.

“We were just seeing growth with the school and moving forward,” he said. “I wanted to give up after the fire because, honestly, I don’t have the resources to continue.”

Hadley Town Administrator David G. Nixon said the town is trying to coordinate a way with insurance companies and investigators to allow business owners to recoup any personal property that can be salvaged, but investigating and securing the site is the first priority.

“Right now, it’s still an open investigation and people aren’t allowed in,” he said Tuesday.

He said he has contacted Hadley’s state and federal legislative delegation to see what types of assistance might be available to help the independent business owners. The town is also talking with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce about ideas for helping them.

Nixon said the fire’s destruction is a big loss for the town, as well.

“These are some family-run businesses. They’re all individuals who have invested heavily in Hadley,” he said. “They are part of the community and they provide excellent services. It’s a real blow.”

Support encouraging

Nguyen said strong support from his 30 or so students and their families has encouraged him to at least find a temporary space to continue teaching while he attempts to rebuild. A friend has already helped him set up an online fundraising site with the goal of raising $20,000.

“I don’t want to give up on them,” he said of his students.

Nguyen said he’s so shocked by the fire that he hasn’t left his apartment for two days.

“It was the biggest hit I’ve ever faced in my life,” he said. “So many people’s lives have been changed. It’s so sad to see.”

Al Valenta, 58, co-owner of Mohawk Revenge tattoo parlor, said his business was uninsured as well. Valenta said that while the tattooing equipment can be replaced, other things cannot, such as original oil paintings and antiques his partner Joe Cox, formerly of New Orleans, brought from that city. Those were destroyed.

Valenta was on Cape Cod with his wife celebrating his wedding anniversary when he got word from a friend that his four-year-old business was burning down. As of Tuesday, he had yet to visit the site.

“There’s just so much personal stuff that is gone,” Valenta said. “There’s no point.”

Valenta and Cox had become partners and less than a year ago rebranded the business, formerly known as Loonar Tattoo and Piercing.

He said the pair has received strong support in the wake of the fire, particularly from the tattoo community, with offers of equipment loans and ways to help raise money.

“I’m definitely going to try to rebuild,” said Valenta, who worked in the variously named tattoo parlors at Norwottuck Shoppes since 1999. “I’ve just got to figure out what to do.”

Still in shock

For others, even the safety net of an insurance policy brings only limited consolation.

“I have never not worked before so I’m really lost without the shop,” said Gregg Thornton of Easthampton, owner of Greggory’s Pastry Shop, which operated in the plaza for the past 15 years and was celebrating its 25th year in business this year.

Thornton, who raced to the scene of the blaze from a friend’s house Sunday night, said the reality of having his pastry shop burn down has not yet sunk in.

“I was just crying my eyes out with all the other business people. It’s been more than overwhelming,” he said. “I didn’t sleep for 24 hours after it happened. Everything is gone. Everything from a baking pan to a measuring cup to freezers.”

Thornton said he plans to start anew, but that will take time and resources. He said his insurance will likely cover much though not all of his losses.

“It’s 15 years of growing supplies and equipment and utensils,” he said. “It’s a lot to bring back to life again.”

As investigators continued working at the scene Tuesday, a worker from Auto Express on Route 9 passed by on his bicycle, stopped and extended a hand, blackened from auto work, to Vivian Chan, whose family owned Wing Wong restaurant, also lost in the blaze.

A regular customer, the man told Chan that he would now have to go somewhere else to eat but asked if she would she consider inviting him to her home for dinner now that her restaurant, which anchored one end of Norwottuck Shoppes, was gone. After the man pedaled on, Chan peered at the devastation behind the chain-link fence.

“Business was good,” she said quietly. “A lot of customers know my restaurant.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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