North River Street fire victims considering their next steps

By Brett Nachtigall


HOT SPRINGS – With all of the global chaos and concern caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it only takes a drive through downtown Hot Springs to be reminded of another recent alarming event that was on the minds of all Fall River County residents only a few weeks ago – the North River Street fire.

The exact cause and precise location of the start of the fire – which burned the night of Monday, Feb. 17, 2020 – was unable to be determined by fire investigators, according to one of the affected business owners, Greg Gunwall from The Vault.

Gunwall said the only thing that could be confirmed for certain is that it started up high and in the ceiling area, but where exactly – and in which business – is unknown.

Due to the unknown nature of the fire’s origin, all three businesses’ insurance companies are working together but taking care of their own individual client’s claims, Gunwall said while adding that he is making plans now to start demo’ing his property soon. The other business owners, including Phap Sam of China Buffet and Brian Powers of Heartsong Quilts, said they are also making similar plans.

Gunwall said a priority of his demolition will be to first get the roof removed so that they can see what all survived the fire but is covered up. So far, from what he has been able to get to, he’s been pleasantly surprised to see how well-intact many of the items are in his restaurant, including the bar, beer taps, some of the taxidermy mounts, and jukebox, to name just a few.

The question that is on the minds of all the customers of the affected businesses is ‘if’ and ‘when’ they will be rebuilding. And the answer is different for each one.

For Phap Sam with China Buffet, who is also dealing with ongoing medical bills due to having a pacemaker implanted just prior to the fire, much is still up in the air and dependent on the final outcome with his insurance.

“I’m actively looking for a building and checking options,” Sam said. “It’s hard to say about rebuilding right now because our insurance company is waiting on one more insurance company to give clearance before we can really proceed. We were hoping to get everything demolished that way we can get contractors in to see what it’ll cost.”

Likewise, Brian Powers, whose family not only lost their business but also their home, also said he too is anxious to see what the demolition process will uncover, as they may also find things under the rubble that survived.

The Powers family said following the fire that they did not plan to rebuild in their current location, and that plan still holds true today. However, they were considering the possibility of finding a temporary downtown, seasonal location for Gus’ Ice Cream. However, as Brian said this past Saturday, “A week ago, the world changed.”

“In light of the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19, it’s unlikely we’ll open this summer—too much to do, too much uncertainty about product, customers, etc., and too short a season to take those risks,” Brian said.

In addition to their ice cream business plans being put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Brian said that two of their children’s longstanding plans to move to New York in April are also on hold. Instead, the family is all staying together in Hot Springs for the time-being, as they are able to continue to rent and live in the home of former Southern Hills E-Free Church Pastor Mark Crossman for as long as they want. 

Brian said their family is still “in a positive place,” thanks to their trust in God. He said his wife has purchased a new sewing machine and is creating quilts again, their children have gotten new musical instruments and being creative. For him, he is continuing to conduct small-group ministry with friends in Hot Springs.

The Vault owner, Greg Gunwall, who has big plans of rebuilding and reopening his restaurant in its current location, has also already jumped in head-first into opening a new business in Hot Springs.

On April 1, Gunwall, along with his partner Kris Bogner, had planned to open Bison Threads and Sweets near the stoplight at 106 N. Chicago. They however has since decided to delay the opening until after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. Once open, the business will feature a wide variety of Hot Springs Bison-related apparel as well as many different types of candy and sweet treats.

Gunwall said he explored all of the available downtown “kitchen” facilities but none were a good fit for his short-term nor his long-term plans. Instead, he will go full-bore into rebuilding The Vault structure by reinforcing with steel the salvageable sandstone to build a Phoenix from the ashes of his former restaurant.

Rather than having it themed with wildlife and taxidermy, he said the new Vault will showcase local attractions and be reopened, bigger and better, by next summer.

Fall River County Herald

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