Several McMinnville firefighters barely escaped serious injury battling the downtown fire Sunday afternoon as they were on the roof and inside the building just before the roof collapsed.
“It’s the closest call we’ve had to getting somebody hurt bad,” said McMinnville Fire Chief Kevin Lawrence. “They know all the warning signs and they felt it giving,” he said of firefighters on the roof. “When that happened, the captain ordered an immediate evacuation. They had been down less than a minute.”
Lawrence says the last time he knows of a McMinnville firefighter dying in the line of duty was in the 1950s. He says that was not the result of smoke or flames, but rather from a heart attack due to increased physical activity.
Thousands of dollars of fire equipment was lost in the fire, including a thermal imaging device valued around $10,000. Lawrence said firefighters left it behind in their rush to escape the building.
“We can replace equipment, but we can’t replace lives,” Lawrence said.
The cause of the fire that struck City Cafe around 2:30 p.m. Sunday will likely never be known, Lawrence said, because of the tremendous amount of rubble.
“It looks accidental, but there’s so much debris it’s tough to say,” said Lawrence. “The fire was mainly on the second floor when it first started, but other than that we can’t say much definitive.”
The fire first started about 30 minutes after Medley left the business after brunch. McMinnville firefighters appeared to have it contained about an hour later as the smoke which filled downtown was gone and there were no visible flames.
Firefighters cutting a hole in the roof may have given the fire the air it needed to rekindle. Flames kicked back up, the roof collapsed, and firefighters were fortunate to avoid injury.
The fire burned well into Sunday night and filled downtown with a heavy, choking smoke. Firefighters returned Monday morning to douse what remained with more water.
“There’s no saving it now,” said building owner Junior Medley after conducting a TV interview in front of City Cafe on Monday. “I’d like to knock it down as soon as we can so nobody gets hurt.”
With fear one of the remaining walls might collapse and fall into the street, the building will be demolished as soon as the comic book store next door is able to clear out its merchandise. That could come as early as today, but building owner Penny Medley couldn’t say exactly when.
“We’re not going to start tearing down a building until the people next door are out,” said Penny. “Their safety is involved and when we start tearing down our building, who knows what’s going to happen to theirs. We’ll get started when they are out.”
Junior and Penny have been bombarded by questions about what they will do next and whether they have plans to reopen City Cafe. Penny says the fire has been a shock and they haven’t had time to gather their thoughts. She said they are not sure about their next course of action.
The scene Sunday was eerily similar to a March 2008 Main Street fire which destroyed the building two doors down from City Cafe. Firetrucks parked at almost exactly the same spots and Capt. Kendall Mayfield was even the same officer in charge.
Just like the 2008 fire, spectators lined Main Street on Sunday and vehicular traffic was heavy Monday from motorists eager to catch a glimpse of the damage.
As for surrounding structures, the comic book store next door operated by Shawn Priest suffered heavy damage. Priest estimates about 40 percent of his merchandise was damaged.
He says his plans are to get all his merchandise out of the building and find another location in the near future. Garner Loudermilk is the building owner. It’s not known if that building will survive demolition of City Cafe.
The Dinty Moore building located behind City Cafe received significant water damage but no structural damage.