Early Sunday morning, a blaze began that eventually destroyed three buildings on Main Street in Marlinton. The conflagration consumed The Old Bank Building, Dirt Bean Ohana and Hudson’s Variety Store buildings. Fortunately, no serious injuries occurred due to the fire.
The first alarm sounded at about 2:30 a.m. Unofficial reports indicate the fire started in the Hudson’s store building. Firefighting units from five counties responded to the scene. A strong southerly wind hampered efforts to contain the blaze. The wind blew directly into the front of the Old Bank Building, intensifying flames inside the structure. A large portion of the building’s top brick facade collapsed into the street about 8:30 a.m.
At 11:30 a.m., the fire was burning in a northern extension of the Old Bank Building. Firefighters concentrated their efforts there to prevent the fire from spreading to the former S.B. Wallace Building to the north.
Assistant State Fire Marshall Tim Mouse arrived before noon and began an investigation of the fire. Lynn Phillips, representing Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, and State Delegate Bill Hartman met with local officials at noon to determine if state assistance was needed.
By 2 p.m., firefighters had successfully contained the fire, but the ruins of three formerly vibrant downtown buildings continued to smolder. The wind and flames subsided and firefighters kept watch at the disaster scene overnight.
Breezy, dry conditions Monday morning caused the Old Bank Building to flame up again. Marlinton VFD returned a tanker truck to the site at 10 a.m. and continued hosing down the flaming ruins. A call went out over 911 at 10:30 a.m., requesting tanker trucks from other county fire departments to return to the scene.
Firefighters decided to let the structure burn, in the hope that its three-story brick walls would collapse into the ruins. Late Monday afternoon, a large portion of walls facing Main Street collapsed into the ruins and onto the sidewalk. As darkness fell Monday evening, huge flames danced into the sky as the Old Bank Building continued burning. Firefighters aimed fire hoses against the precarious Third Avenue wall to force it to fall inwards, a strategy which proved successful when the wall collapsed around 3:30 a.m.
Smoking ruins were all that remained Tuesday morning. Local officials and property owners contemplated the clean-up task ahead.
“My first priority is lodging and clothing for people who were displaced by the fire,” he said. “My second priority is to get the traffic lanes opened up, get the debris removed off the streets. It is my understanding that it is the insurance companies’ responsibility for debris removal. That may happen through the town, where they will come to us and say, ‘we will pay for it, can you get somebody to do it?’ I can find somebody to clean it up. If that doesn’t happen in a short period of time, in a couple weeks, then I will take actions to get it cleaned up.”
The Old Bank Building contained apartments, a Nationwide Insurance business, a state WIC office, a U.S. Forest Service office, a tax office, a licensing business and The Corner Salon. Twelve people were displaced from their apartments by the fire. The American Red Cross provided temporary lodging for those persons at the Marlinton Motor Inn. Some already had made more permanent arrangements, as of Wednesday morning.
Smith is uncertain about the fire’s long-term impact to the town.
“I would venture to say, once the buildings are removed, we’re going to look at a vacant lot there for several months, if not years,” he said. “But I feel very positive about Marlinton being able to recover from this and bounce back. There’s a lot of issues involved. I honestly, at this point in time, don’t know what the impact is going to be.”
The State Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the cause of the fire. Assistant State Fire Marshall Jason Baltic could not say how long the investigation would take.
“It’s still ongoing,” he said. “There’s interviews being conducted and statements being taken and so on. It could be ongoing for quite awhile. Right now, it’s undetermined.”
“I was asleep and I was awoken by smoke,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe. Kind of simultaneously, I awoke, having trouble breathing, and my smoke detector was going off. I ran to my living room and tried to see if there was something in my place that was on fire. The smoke was so thick, I couldn’t see, but I saw there were no flames in my place. I looked out my back window and just saw a huge amount of smoke coming out of the neighboring building. So, I ran to my bedroom, grabbed my dog, wrapped myself in a sheet, managed to find my keys and ran outside the building. That was around 2:30 in the morning.”
The Dirt Bean was a popular Main Street business and a gathering place for local residents. Lanier said she is undecided whether she will re-open her business in Marlinton.
“I have no plans for the future right now, except try to recover what I can and get myself into a new place,” she said. “I can’t even begin to tell you what I’m going to do yet.”
Lanier said the timing of the fire was unfortunate because she had just “turned a corner” financially and her business was doing well. She added that she had overcome several obstacles in establishing her business – especially the bureaucratic recalcitrance of the local government.
“I’ve received a huge amount of support from my friends, my customers, the fire department,” she said. As far as town officials, nobody has even spoken to me.”
Pocahontas County Emergency Management Director Shawn Dunbrack said 19 fire departments and about 150 outside firefighters arrived to help battle the blaze.
“We had no problems during this fire,” he said. “We had excellent response from the surrounding counties. I think about five different counties responded to this incident with excellent support. We had excellent support from the hospital and the community – donating food and drinks to support these firefighters. We’re really happy with the support we got.”
“We gave it our best effort to extinguish the fire – a very uncontrollable fire,” he said. “We used an amazing amount of water. Extreme resources from all departments. A great outpouring from the community given to the department – feeding the firefighters, making sure they were taken care of. I thank everyone for what they’ve done. We’re pretty exhausted but we’re going to keep after it – we’ve still got some hot spots.”
The following fire departments, organizations and businesses assisted in the firefighting effort: Marlinton; Bartow-Frank-Durbin; Hillsboro; Shavers Fork; Frost; Cass; Renick; Frankfordt; Lewisburg; White Sulphur Springs; Anthony Creek; Clintonville; Smoot; Alderson; Tri-County; Alderson Federal Female Correctional Facility Fire Department; Cowen; Valley Head; Richwood; West Virginia State Police; Pocahontas County Sheriff’s Department; West Virginia State Fire Marshal; West Virginia Division of Highways; Pocahontas County Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; American Red Cross; Monongahela Power Company and Frontier Communications. Numerous other departments were on stand-by to respond or cover the districts of the departments which did respond. Apologies if any department was not included.
The Old Bank Building was the oldest building on Main Street in Marlinton. The Bank of Marlinton contracted with E.D. King in 1900 to build the three-story, brick building, at a cost less than $11,000. Construction began in June 1900 and the building was completed in April 1901. The April 25, 1901 edition of The Pocahontas Times reads, “The Bank of Marlinton is now in its new quarters. The furniture and equipments are first class and up to date.”