From havoc, hope emerges

Downtown fire destroys three buildings.

Posted on Sept. 24, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART — As crews worked to clean debris from a fire that destroyed three buildings in downtown Elkhart early Sunday morning, the smell of damp, burnt materials lingered in the air.

Sandy Polk, the wife of Lifeline founder Irv Polk, stood across the street, gazing at the building she and her husband had turned into a youth center more than four decades ago.

When she first heard about the fire, “I was numb and I cried a lot,” Polk said. “I felt violated.”

Though it was difficult to come to terms with the destruction of a building she had invested years of her life in, Polk’s grief turned to hope.

“I just see there are possibilities,” she said. “More could come out of this than we could ever imagine.”

Darrell Peterson, the executive director of Lifeline, agreed.

Support from the community is already pouring in. Peterson received almost immediate encouragement, from text messages and phone calls to Facebook messages. He even received a message from a person in South Africa who had seen the news on Lifeline’s Facebook page.

Peterson also said several organizations have already offered to allow Lifeline use of their facilities for the organization’s weekday activities. He said starting this morning, the staff will start making plans.

“We will be inconvenienced but we won’t be stopped,” Peterson said. “It (the response) showed me how much this community cares about what goes on here.”

Many questions remain surrounding the Sunday morning fire that destroyed three buildings and injured four people. Why did this happen, or, how did it start?

The answers will most likely trickle in over the coming days, but investigators will have their hands full in the meantime.

From the information already known, this is what appears to have happened:

Just before 2 a.m., the blaze started at what was once Tony’s Shoe Store at 615 East St. From there, the fire spread south to the neighboring Lifeline/Youth for Christ building on State Street and north to an apartment house on Division Street.

Firefighters from Elkhart, Concord and Osolo teamed to control the blaze. Gallons upon gallons of water were dumped on the fire.

Electricity was cut for blocks. The police and fire departments were forced to operate on generators for much of the day. The Lerner Theatre had to postpone the performance of “Smoke on the Mountain: Homecoming” until tonight because of the outage. Power wasn’t restored until approximately 5 p.m. Sunday.

Several neighbors said they heard loud pops before the electricity went out.

James Anderson, who lives down the street from the apartment house, said he could feel the heat when he stood at his window. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It went up really fast.”

In the end, the apartment building sustained heavy damage. The roof of the Lifeline building collapsed. And the Shoe Store? Nothing was left but a heap of rubble.

People from two of the apartment units were able to escape the blaze unscathed. Three people in a third unit, however, had to be rescued from the building and suffered burns and smoke inhalation, said Elkhart fire inspector Kent Stouder. The three were taken by MedFlight to the Fort Wayne burn center. As of Sunday evening, the names and conditions of the injured were unknown.

A firefighter was also injured while battling the fire. He was hit by the water stream from a hose and was taken to Elkhart General Hospital.

Ana Gubara, a resident of the apartment house, said through a translator that all her family owned was lost. Luckily, she and her two children who were home made it out of the building unharmed. Her other two children were spending the night away at their cousins’ house.

Though they lost everything, Gubara said that a friend has already opened her home to her and her family in the wake of the fire.

Driving to church Sunday with nine members of Lifeline in tow, Peterson made sure to take the kids past the building. He wanted to let them see what had happened.

Peterson said as they drove and discussed the destruction, one of the members said, “God’s not surprised and he knows exactly what he’s doing.”

A day that started with only devastation and sadness had already turned resilient and hopeful.


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