He said the blaze remains under investigation and no other details were available Wednesday.
Joe Hannah, owner of South Shore Water Works whose grandfather, James E. Hannah, built the two-story brick building in 1926 for businessman Sam Roberson, said when he heard the destruction of the old landmark could be the result of arson his heart sank.
“It was as if someone had murdered one of my best friends,” Hannah said.
Donnie Townsend, who owns the brokerage business across Main Street from the building, said who ever started the fire jeopardized the lives of some of the best firefighters in the business.
“These guys are first class. They saved my business and others around,” Townsend said.
The heat melted one of the signs in front of his business. On the one left standing, he had posted the message:
“Thanks to all the firefighters that risked everything for all of us.”
“I understand they have a suspect. I don’t know who it is, but I’ve ran it through my mind over and over and I can’t imagine who would do it,” he said.
According to Townsend, the building was owned by Bob and Ryan Sells, who operate Cook’s Farm Store in Ironton. The farm supply business inside was run by Brian Simpson of the South Shore area.
Townsend sold the building to the Sells about three years ago and Simpson had been running his farm store there for about a year and a half.
“I talked with Ryan Sells and I can tell you he is devastated at hearing that arson may be involved,” Townsend said.
He said he also talked with Simpson.
“He said he was in the street jumping the battery on a vehicle when somebody drove by and was looking up toward the top of the building. He said he then looked up himself and saw smoke rising above the roof,” Townsend said.
The South Shore Volunteer Fire Department got the call shortly before 7:30 a.m. and asked for and got help from four surrounding fire departments — Maloneton, Lloyd, Fire Brick and Washington Township.
South Shore Fire Chief Kenneth Taylor and Portsmouth Daily Times reporter Frank Lewis narrowly escaped injury when the top half of one wall suddenly collapsed into the middle of James E. Hannah Avenue.
“I saw that happen and those men had a guardian angel, I’m sure of that,” Townsend said.
Townsend was at his home on Schulltz Creek when someone called to tell him about the fire.
“I jumped in the car barefooted and drove toward town. As I came over Morton Hill, I saw the smoke and flames and saw an explosion that shot a ball of fire across the street toward my business, which has a wood-thatched roof. How the firemen manning the hoses escaped injury I’ll never know,” he said.
Shrapnel from the explosion cracked both of the picture windows on the side of his store.
“I thought I had lost my business for sure,” said Townsend, who was back in business the next day.
Wednesday afternoon, people with memories of the landmark walked the streets around the smoking bricks and twisted steel beams. Two of them were Buck Spears and Ben Carver, both 1963 graduates of McKell High School.
Spears said that while he was in high school he made his spending money by working odd jobs for Sam Roberson, who ran his grocery, furniture and dry goods store in the building from the day it opened in June 1926 until his death in 1970.
“If I needed money for a date or something, I’d ask Mr. Roberson if he had some job I could do to make a little money. He would always come up with something, and pay me right then,” Spears said.
Carver said he often heard stories of S.M. Roberson’s generosity from his parents. Many people ran a tab with him and he sometimes carried them over when necessary.
After the 1937 flood devastated so many families in the surrounding communities, Carver said, “They said of Mr. Roberson, and I believe it, that he forgave everybody who owed him money, wiped the slate clean and let them start over.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236, or firstname.lastname@example.org.