Hadley disaster: Business owners take stock at scene of strip mall fire

Last modified: Tuesday, October 29, 2013

HADLEY — Standing Monday morning behind a band of yellow hazard-scene tape, staring at his charred sign and the burned rubble that remains of his livelihood, Steve Marcil uttered over and over, “This is unbelievable.”

Marcil, of Chicopee, who had returned to the scene of the Sunday night fire that destroyed the small strip of 11 shops and two apartments at 206 Russell St., was hoping to get close to his ruined computer store to salvage hard drives or other pieces that might be dug out of the soggy black mess.

It wasn’t looking good.

“There are still hot spots. They aren’t letting anybody in,” Hadley firefighter John Mieczkowski told him. Mieczkowski pointed out another official who could offer some advice.

“My business is gone,” Marcil said, on the verge of tears. He’d owned College Pro Computers for more than 20 years.

Standing nearby eavesdropping on what Mieczkowski was advising were Hassam Oulbeid and Mohammed Keffas of Easthampton, who owned Casablanca Halal Market, which sold Middle Eastern, African and Asian foods.

Like Marcil, the pair had been at the scene the previous night watching their business go up in flames and were back to see if they could recover any belongings.

“We’re here trying to see if we can get anything out,” Oulbeid said. He was hoping a cash box filled with money from Sunday’s business might have survived.

Building owner David Thatcher of Greenfield, who was there with his son Justin Thatcher of Colrain, who manages the building, said it was too early to say whether he would rebuild the T-shaped structure he has owned for 13 years. The Hadley assessors office has it valued at $1,033,400.

“I still haven’t met with the insurance people,” he said. “It’s a total loss.”

What Thatcher ultimately decides to do will be of great interest to the tenants of the strip mall, most of them small-business owners who are relatively new immigrants to this country. The strip of businesses has a decidedly mom-and-pop feel.

Shopkeepers interviewed Monday said they would like to reopen. Some said they had insurance but must wait to hear from Thatcher before they can decide what to do.

The owner of Mi Tierra restaurant, Jorge Sosa of South Hadley, who has been running his family-run restaurant for about seven years, said that he wants to reopen — though left with nothing, he doesn’t know how or where.

“I still believe in the American dream. I won’t let this take away my happiness,” he said in a telephone interview.

Surveying the scene

The area between East Street and Farm Lane was closed until late afternoon Monday, though Hadley police were allowing cars headed to unaffected neighboring businesses to enter the area. A large red and white van, the Incident Support Unit of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, was parked on the lawn across the road from burned building. At least three state police investigators were on hand, along with two from the state fire marshal’s office, said Amherst Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren, who was serving as the coordinator of the regional task force. That task force consists of firefighters from eight departments across the state who came to Hadley Monday morning to give local firefighters a rest. Hadley firefighters, who had worked through the night, were expected back late in the afternoon to continue monitoring the building’s remains for hot spots that could reignite.

Stromgren said while the fast-moving fire was believed to have started somewhere in the back of the complex, investigators were just beginning their investigation at mid-day Monday and no further information about cause or origin was available.

The businesses in the back were Hadley Coin Op Laundromat, Kung Fu Wushu Academy and Mi Tierra. Those in the front facing Route 9 were Wing Wong restaurant, Hadley Dry Cleaners, Greggory’s Pastry Shop, Mohawk’s Revenge tattoo parlor, Banh Mi Saigon restaurant, the International Food Market, Casablanca Halal Market and College Pro Computers.

The American Red Cross had its mobile kitchen parked near the investigators’ van. Volunteers were serving chicken soup, coffee, Gatorade, sandwiches, doughnuts, chips and candy to the firefighters.

Throughout the morning Monday, proprietors of many of the stores and restaurants that were destroyed arrived with family and friends to watch the fire crews, hoping to get a few bits of information and console one another.

The fire was reported at 7:40 p.m., shortly after many of the business owners said they had gone home for the night. Mi Tierra was still open and customers had to be evacuated — as were guests of the nearby Knights Inn, although it did not catch fire. A resident of one of the two apartments in the building was evacuated. The tenant of the second unit was not at home, said Justin Thatcher, the building manager.

Everything gone

Hai Cheng of Hadley bought International Market from Ry Som and Ritha Krouch of Belchertown two years ago. Som and Krouch had owned and operated it for 17 years before selling to Cheng. On Monday morning they were with him standing behind the yellow tape.

The couple had called Cheng Sunday night when family and friends contacted them about the blaze.

“We felt so sad and scared,” Krouch said. “We had to come to see. The store is still kind of a part of us.”

Ironically, they had been meeting with Cheng on Sunday to discuss ways he could increase his business, which was to include adding a kitchen to serve hot food. Cheng said he left the store around 7:20, 20 minutes before the fire was reported.

He was in bed when he turned on the television news and saw his business sign engulfed in flames.

“I jumped out of bed, got in my car and came as fast as I could to witness this amazing disaster in process,” he said. “Everything is gone.”

He estimates that he had invested about $250,000 in the market.

Oulbeid and Keffas, who opened Casablanca Halal Market nearly four years ago, were standing next to Cheng, Krouch and Som on the grass Monday morning. They said they were finally beginning to see sales increase. The halal meats they sold drew customers from Boston. “Business was just starting to pick up,” Keffas said.

“We scratched every penny, every dime to build this.” The pair estimated they lost $200,000 in products and equipment.

Later in the morning Chuong Son of Hadley arrived with this wife, Mung Pham, who was holding their 2½-year-old daughter, Dalyni. They owned the Vietnamese sandwich shop Banh Mi Saigon for the past 16 months. They, too, stood sadly on the curb, watching the small knots of remaining firefighters consult. They estimated the monetary value of their loss at $120,000.

“Hopefully we can reopen,” Son said. “People on Facebook are asking us to reopen, but I don’t know.”

Marcil, holding a large cup of coffee and with a friend from Vermont at his side, said he had at least 36 computer jobs in process and is now faced with dealing with upset customers. In fact, one called him on his cellphone while he was at the scene.

He shook his head when the call ended. The customer, he said, was yelling at him in anger. “Can you believe that?” he said. “I’ve just lost everything. It’s so emotional right now.” The night before, he said, he returned home from the fire scene freezing after standing in the puddles of fire-hose water and couldn’t sleep. “I was so shocked. I was crying,” he said.

Marcil said he doesn’t know what comes next, but he wants to resume his enterprise, which he’s run in the same location for 22 years. “I like Hadley. It’s a great place,” Marcil said. “But I have to do whatever it takes” to get up and running again.

Justin Thatcher broke down in tears as he surveyed the scene.

“These are all family-run businesses,” he said. “They’d come here every day and work long and hard. This was their livelihood and now they don’t have it. It makes me sick.”

Staff writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this report.

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.


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