Monday, March 20, 2017

Part IX - The Fire

In the early morning hours on Saturday March 11, 2017 Wicked Chronic and 9 other small businesses were destroyed by fire. The entire plaza is a total loss for all businesses. The fire investigator believes the fire started in the center of the plaza, most likely in the attic area of the Bella Sisters Salon and Spa. It was most likely accidental and electrical in nature.

It was sometime after 6:00 AM when I was woken by Beverly yelling across the house that she had a voice mail message from our alarm company, ADT.  As I laid in bed trying to wipe the fog from my head over the suddenness in which I was awoken, my first thought was it would turn out to be our second false alarm. I was remembering we had just hung a lightweight flag in our front window, which is near a motion sensor. This had happened to us before when we hung a decoration from the ceiling too close to the sensor and the heat kicked on blowing the decoration around tripping the sensor.  I was thinking the same thing had happened until just a few seconds after Beverly had awoken me, she yelled again.

“I just hung up on ADT! It was a fire alarm! I’m headed over there now!” Bang. The door closed behind her.


Ok, now I am moving much quicker. I was also thinking about what could have started a fire in our store. We have a lot of candles, incense, lighters, butane cans and matches. Sometimes we light candles, but we are usually super careful to make sure they are all out before we leave for the day. The only light that is left on we actually can’t turn off. It is a safety/security overhead light. It’s always on, 24 x 7.  There was (ouch, I have to use the past tense of a word to describe our dream store) an LED sign in our storefront window that we always left on.

As I was getting my coat on and heading out the door Beverly called me.

“It’s all gone!”

I could hear the stress in her voice. This was no joke.

“The whole plaza. It’s all gone. Everything.”

“I’m on my way.” was the only response I could come up with. By the time I got to the scene Beverly had already left for home.

It was indeed all gone. At 6:45 AM only one fire engine remained and was still pouring water down into the plaza from atop a high ladder. They were focusing on an area that was still smoking. There was no roof over any of the 10 businesses. The entire roof had collapsed down. Luckily for us, all of the exterior walls remained upright.

It has been exactly one week as I write this and it is still heartbreaking and difficult to talk about.
Wicked Chronic, Trinity Optical, J & M Diner, Do Dance Ballet & Fitness, Bella Sisters Salon & Spa, Merle Norman Cosmetics, Chiropractic Solutions, Styles & Smiles, The Predaxis Encounter and Holistic Health & Nutrition all destroyed and gone.

The loss of our “baby” has been and still is a roller coaster journey of emotions. I still haven’t made it through a day without feeling sad to the point I have to stop what I am doing and go have a good cry, again. How many tears can the human body hold onto? Buckets worth.

Those first two days it was just shock and tears.  At least since Monday we have been able to focus on actually moving forward a few small steps at a time. We were finally able to talk to our insurance company’s adjuster and learn what to expect going forward. Even with some businesses having the same insurance company, we know there will be at most 8 independent insurance investigations into the cause of the fire, along with the Framingham Fire Department’s own investigation. This could take up to a year to complete.

In the meantime we have a lot of paperwork to re-create and put together for our claim. Stock levels and values, furniture and build-out costs and media items like computers and printers all have to be documented and what the cost is to replace all of it as well. We are killing a lot of trees printing out invoices. Our insurance adjuster prefers we fax all of our documentation instead of sending it electronically, because more trees need to be killed by the fax machine.

Then comes Friday the 17th. All business owners were invited to meet with our State representatives, Senator Spilka and Representative Walsh, who showed up to see the destruction, get in a photo op and discuss with us how our government could potentially help us.  The YMCA in Framingham (across the street from our businesses) was gracious enough to allow us to host our meeting.

Access was clearly the number one concern for every business owner.  None of us have been allowed inside our stores to try and salvage what we can. The scene is fenced off and there is usually someone sitting in a car watching to make sure no one goes in. The landlord’s insurance company has control over the scene and will not allow any access until after their investigation is complete.

On the Monday after the fire and one day before a blizzard dumped 12 inches of heavy snow on top of the plaza, I did manage to get up close to our front door and window to peek inside. The way the roof collapsed, even if I could get through the front door or window I would not be able to get more than 2 feet inside because the roof has cut off all access to any part of the store.  Our store is also 1 of 2 that did not have a rear entrance. Our only way in is through the front or cutting a hole through the adjoining wall between our store and our neighbor, Trinity Optical.

Not knowing what is left inside that is salvageable is disheartening. The stock and display cases are easily replaced, but there are a few personnel possessions that we want to recover or at least know they can’t be recovered. The not knowing is killing me.

There is an antique wood desk that my grandfather had passed down to my father and he passed down to me. It was hand carved with very intricate details, a leather top and a secret hidden drawer in the back. We had it in the back of the store and setup as a Wicca alter. It was beautiful and Beverly gets all the credit for setting it up. Every customer commented on how amazing the desk looked.  At this point it could just be a pile of ash. We just don’t know.

The Friday meeting with our government representatives was surprisingly calm. No one was yelling or trying to throw blame around.  And no one was making any unreasonable requests. Our landlord, the Brossi Brothers, gave all of us envelopes with checks. We received our full March rent and security deposit back. That helped a great deal and they didn’t have to give it back to us right then and there just a week after the fire. They could have waited the 90 days specified in our lease agreement and they could have given us just a partial refund of our March rent. But they didn’t because they are as devastated as we are and they are trying to do the right thing. The Brossi Brothers have always been great landlords and have always done right by us. We will miss them.

Other big issues that came up during our “government” meeting was around licensing and how might the government help speed up the process of getting us re-licensed at new locations.  Of course they said they could help, but then this was said by the Chairperson of the Framingham Selectmen.

“It’s the government. It’s slow. Everyone knows this. It’s just the way it is.”

Holy crap are you kidding me. Not one person blinked or huffed or said anything about that last statement, ‘it’s just the way it is.’  Not even I said anything.  Every American in our country has accepted as fact that our government is slow to help people and there is nothing that can be done about it. Sad.

Most of their help being offered comes in the form of their offices calling the insurance companies on our behalf to put pressure on them to keep things moving along quickly. Pot calling the kettle black. So we have a slow responding government who is going to call the slowly moving insurance companies to get them to move quicker. Yikes.

As for Old Path Village, the Brossi Brothers plan to rebuild as quickly as possible. The original building was a one story plaza.  They are hoping to add a second floor for more retail space. Whatever they do decide to do it will take at least a year and probably longer before any new businesses can occupy the space again.  Wicked Chronic cannot wait a year or more to re-open and most of the other businesses will also re-open elsewhere.

Our plan for Wicked Chronic moving forward is to find a new location in the Natick/Framingham area and reopen as quickly as possible. I am thinking less than 6 months. Hopefully we can do it in 3 to 4 months.

The outpouring of support from our vendors, fellow headshop owners and the community has been unreal. One of our vendors is sending a care package of glass and pipes to us. Others have offered free merchandise when we re-open so we can fill shelves. Thank you.

One of our closest friends has created a GoFundMe page on our behalf. I love you Lisa, you are the sweetest person in the world. Thank you.

And to my new boss, Deana, thank you for the job. This is a huge burden lifted from my shoulders knowing we will at least have a little money coming in to pay our bills. One day I will find a way to repay you for your kindness. Thank you.

Now it is time to find a new location for Wicked Chronic. Onward and upward. Forward we march.