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Debris from fire scene is being investigated

THOMSON --- Samples from the scene of a fire that destroyed or closed a block of businesses have been taken to a crime lab.

The blaze that struck a West Hill Street strip mall the morning of Feb. 16 remained under investigation this week.

"I spoke with the state's investigators, and they have released the scene," Thomson Fire Chief Rick Sewell told The McDuffie Mirror on Monday. He said authorities "have completed the scene work" but will continue interviews and other investigation for perhaps another week.

Investigators from the state Department of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner reported Friday that samples from the debris were picked up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Buck Anderson said he and Joey Davis of Two State Construction Co. were working at First Baptist Church when they saw the smoke and called the fire department.

Firefighters were summoned about 8:22 a.m. to 206 W. Hill St., once the home of Cofer's Supermarket. Onlookers watched for hours as firefighters battled flames and smoke.

No one was injured in the blaze that destroyed Xtreme Signs and Graphics, an antiques and collectibles business behind the shop, and Annie Bailey's Tax Service. Some roof damage was reported at Balloon Delights.

Customers rushed from Little G's Pizza restaurant, part of the building that formerly housed Sophie's restaurant.

Little G's was closed for days because of smoke damage and because electrical service had to be cut during the fire.

Phyllis Newman, the owner of Balloon Delights, which separates Little G's and Annie Bailey's tax service, met with her insurance adjuster Monday.

"We're still closed, and we will be closed for another couple of weeks, maybe longer," she told The McDuffie Mirror. "A lot of merchandise was damaged. Paper products, stuffed animals and balloons."

She said the building owner was busy repainting the interior and repairing the roof and ceiling on Monday.

"Our ceiling has about five big holes in it where the firemen had to cut in to make sure there was no fire in between there in the attic," she said.

She said she wants to assure her customers that all obligations are covered, including a wedding cake promised for March 26.

"I told them I will be glad to do it and will do it even if I have to make it from home," she said.

Antiques store owner Thomas E. Howell of Mitchell, Ga., said his entire inventory was destroyed.

"I'm sure I lost everything, 25 or 30 years of collecting all kinds of memorabilia," Howell said. He said his collection included Coca-Cola signs, gas station signs and more. "It's priceless," he said.

Rosie Norris, who operates Xtreme Signs and Graphics with her husband, Ken, said the 3-year-old business had been in the Hill Street location about a year and a half. She said some completed orders were lost in the fire.

Annie Bailey said her tax service had been in that location since about 2001. She said the fire struck in the middle of the tax season. As firefighters hauled charred tax files and blackened computer towers toward the curb for her, Ms. Bailey said she would find another location as soon a possible and her customers could reach her at the same phone number.

Little G's, which had opened at 5 a.m., was in the middle of its breakfast trade when the fire struck.

"We were at the restaurant, saw something and thought it might be fog," said James Buffington of Thomson. He said he and his friends went outside and determined that smoke was pouring past the building. He said everyone "just got out."

Little G's owner Lisa Adams said she bought the restaurant about three weeks ago. She said she was working in the back part of the restaurant when she was notified of the fire.

"So I collected the most critical pieces of equipment and left," she said. "We appreciate all the prayers. That is what's most important, is that everyone did get out."

After the fire threat was past, Mrs. Adams said, the freezers were collected and hauled to safety.

"God will take care of us, and we will be even better," she said. "So as soon as we can get back, we will. Because we've got some loyal customers."

One day later, staff and friends were busy cleaning the restaurant. Huge fans powered by portable generators were pushing fresh air through the building. Workers scurried to wash everything that had been exposed to the smoke.

Other businesses were evacuated during the fire and closed until power could be restored. At least one of those businesses was open again Thursday.

Attempts to reach building owner John McNeill Jr. were unsuccessful. Michael Crosby, an investigator with the State Fire Marshal's Office, said ATF agents were at the scene because several businesses were in the connected buildings and because of the federal tax records at Annie Bailey's Tax Service.

Web posted on Thursday, February 24, 2011

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