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150 Years of History, Gone in 10 Hours: The Day Garrettsville Went Up in Flames 

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"We were working," the roofer says in a strained voice, "there was a wall, we were probably halfway done. We were rolling the roofing up against the wall."

"You were laying the tar paper down or flashing?" an investigator says.

"We were putting the roofing on and rolling it up against the wall. We didn't want it to leak. I'd say about 10 or 15 minutes later, we noticed smoke coming out of the soffit."

"Ok, were you guys hot sealing that?"

"Yeah."

"And then what did you guys do?"

"Ran down and grabbed my cell phone, called 911, the police station told my work to go run and tell the place the building's on fire." He chokes up a little bit. "I just felt so helpless! Go in the building, tell everybody the building's on fire."

"It was an accident," another investigator says. "It was an accident, okay? That's what it was, I know it's not fun and it's upsetting, but nobody got hurt — that we're aware of. Maybe one minor thing, but the person was released, okay, nothing serious though."

"I mean you were roofing," the first investigator says. "It's an accident, correct? It's not like you did this on purpose."

"No, I didn't. I mean, we looked up, there was smoke pouring out of the thing. I just felt so helpless."

Reppy felt helpless too. Paralyzed, really, and in disbelief.

"I was standing in the back alley with my landlord Randy — he had the business next to me, closer to the fire. And although we couldn't see a lot of what was going on in there, we thought there could only be one reason they were cutting open that roof and it's because they gave up on saving it," says Reppy. "That's when I started realizing... you're numb, you're literally numb. I got in my car and everybody was looking at me like, 'Jim, what are ya gonna do?' It was a cold day and at one point I went and sat in my car, behind the police station, and I was just kinda looking at people because it had become an event. I was just thinking this was never going to be the same; it's a sudden realization that everything is totally changed and you aren't ready for that change."

That note of surreal devastation struck not only business owners but the residents who watched Main Street spring to life through the passion and action of their neighbors and friends.

"This is a small town. We take this personally. We know these business owners by name. We care what becomes of them. And we miss the sense of community they helped create along Main Street," says writer and Garrettsville resident Estelle Brown to Scene. "The day of the fire, we just couldn't believe what we were witnessing. Those of us who saw the fire shortly after it started figured it would be put out shortly, and there would be minimal damage. But soon we realized water was no match for this ravenous blaze.

"Then it became a devastating historic event we couldn't pull ourselves away from. It was like watching a beautiful dream die a violent death. This block of shops had been the brightest spot on Main Street. It was a rare place of fulfilled promise in an otherwise struggling village. It was set to lead the way for the rest of the downtown's revitalization in the wake of the recession.

"Witnessing the fire rage through the windows, then seeing the front face of the cypress-green building buckle and collapse as the flames and black smoke overtook the structure caused people around me to cry out and burst into tears. More and more people crowded as close as police and firemen would allow, calling out to one another on the streets, giving play-by-plays on their phones, snapping pictures and taking video. It was like a macabre carnival atmosphere."

***

In addition to the business lost, the Nelson Garrettsville Community Cupboard, a food bank serving two villages, was destroyed. It had been serving 200 families prior to the fire, according to Joe Leonard, who heads the operation. Freezers, refrigerators, and a stockpile of food was lost.

But the community support quickly helped those helping those in need.

"The donations just poured in," says Leonard. "It was incredible. It's such a generous community."

Help came from all over the state and from the unlikeliest of sources, including an 11-year-old girl in Stow who started a fundraiser at her church. Some kids gave allowance money. A group of Amish did renovations on a new space for free.

It was a far cry from that Saturday when Leonard talked to the fire chief, who said, "My worst nightmare just came true."

"We were back up and running within two weeks," says Leonard. They're now serving 300 families.

***

Six months later, the half-block plot where the Buckeye Building used to stand is just a grass field. The other half block is gravel and cement. The lone structure bears telltale signs of fire damage on its exterior walls, which would be the only hint to newcomers that this isn't always how Main Street looked.

Businesses are still adjusting to a new normal, including Maschek, who recently bought a 19th-century mill alongside the river downtown. Crews are currently working to restore what had been one of Garrettsville's biggest eyesores into something charming that could help drive economic, and emotional, recovery.

But Maschek's priority is the now-vacant lot. He says he started planning its future the day after the fire.

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