Hawkins unsure of future after blaze destroys business

Rick Hawkins, left, assesses the destruction of his 24-year old business Hawkins Auto Service at 16th and Avenue E in Fort Madison. The building was destroyed by fire overnight Monday. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

Late Monday fire destroys 97-year old auto service


FORT MADISON – A late Monday evening fire that lasted well into Tuesday morning, has left 65-year-old Rick Hawkins contemplating his future.

Hawkins is the owner of Hawkins Auto Service at 1602 Avenue E. The service center was destroyed by fire overnight Monday.

Fire officials said the fire started in the upper ceilings of the structure, but took a while to show itself in cold, crisp air with a wind blowing from the southeast.

Rick Hawkins, the 24-year owner of Hawkins Auto Service at 1602 Avenue G, collects items from a 97-year old safe that was in the office, that preserved important documents and other items. Firefighters were back on the scene Tuesday morning investigating the cause of the fire that destroyed the auto center overnight Monday. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

Fire Chief Joey Herren said that helped protect property directly behind the building.

“We didn’t even have any blistering on the home behind the property,” he said.

The weather conditions and materials being burned made fighting the fire difficult.

Captain Eric Kerns, who had command at the scene said the smoke from the fire was so heavy it bogged down the department’s chainsaws so accessing the roof was difficult.

“The smoke was so heavy the chainsaws wouldn’t run. There was a double layer ceiling and we couldn’t find where the seed of the fire was. The whole time it was building up above.”

Kerns said firefighters went looking around for about the first hour putting out flare ups that kept cropping up around the roof the building.

“We went in kinda looking around and there was a seam over the garage part and we could see an orange glow running front to back and from that point we went into defensive mode. It wasn’t even two minutes later when it all went through.”

He said at that point, all the firefighters were out of the building and they began fighting the fire from the exterior and above.

“We don’t have a cause yet,” he said. “We’ll be here for a while investigating it.”

Herren said the attic was several layers thick and the flames took some time getting through to the surface.

Hawkins said the original office on the lot was built in 1922.  It had an office area with a pump island and two gas pumps on it.

“The guy that had this before, his uncle named it “Studies”. I bought it 1994, they had gas originally, but that was all gone when I bought it.”

Hawkins said the only thing he wanted out of the building was the safe and said the building is a total loss.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do yet. I planned on working another four or five years, but I’m just going to see where I’m at with the insurance. The only thing worth saving in there is the safe.”

Kerns said there were vehicles and several flammable materials in the building, but there were no explosions or other potentially dangerous situations, aside from the fire itself.

“These are some of the worst kinds of fires because you don’t know what’s inside. Not only were we wary of explosives in a garage, but also we had to feel around for pits where someone could fall in.”

Hawkins, who lives near Argyle, got a call at about 10:30 from a buddy who informed him of the fire.

Hawkins said he closed up the office at about 4:30 on Monday and said he wouldn’t have even opened considering it was the holiday, but was, ironically, scheduled to meet with a new property insurance rep.

“I probably wouldn’t even have been here yesterday, but I changed insurance companies and the new agent wanted to meet here to sign the paperwork and pick up a check,” he said.

Firefighters were on the scene for nearly five hours with the last crews coming back to the firehouse at about 3 a.m.. The call came into LeeComm dispatch just before 10 p.m. with a report of flames being seen by a passerby through the window and smoke coming from the building.

Fire officials quickly made an all-call for all off-duty personnel and then requested mutual aid from Denmark Fire & Rescue for manpower and air supply.

Firefighters used a water/foam mixture from the ground and then called the ladder truck to the scene where they worked on the roof from the north side of the building before moving to the east side on 16th Street just before the fire broke through the ceiling and roof.

“We were going through so many airtanks that we called in Denmark because they have a mobile cascade system to fill airtanks for some manpower,” Kerns said.

On Tuesday morning, fire officials were back on the scene investigating the fire and helping Hawkins recover paperwork, and other items, that were well protected in a safe that was almost 100 years old.

Below is a link to a video firefighters battling the blaze late Monday night.

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