Local arts efforts scorched by Mississippi Mall fire

Published 3:04 am Sunday, June 21, 2009

When the Mississippi Mall began to burn on Saturday, theCarver Culture Museum, the Greater Picayune Arts Council and The Shriners, suddenly found themselves on the brink of being displaced, and the curator of the Carver Culture Museum actually found himself facing great danger.

“I couldn’t see,” said Clinton Baker, curator of the Carver Culture Museum, which is located inside the Mississippi Mall. He was inside the museum on Saturday, June 13, when the mall became engulfed in flames and smoke from a fire that originated in National Home Furnishings, a furniture store located on the north end of the mall.

Baker was just getting ready to close up shop for the evening, when two guests arrived with a small child wanting a tour.

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The Carver Museum houses artifacts from the long closed Carver High School, the African American school in Picayune in operation during segregation. Baker was a former student at the school.

The museum just recently relocated to the south end of the mall, after having spent several years in a room much closer to the furniture store on the north end.

At the conclusion of the tour, Baker said he started to escort his guests out of the building, but when he opened the museum door he couldn’t see the way out due to the thick smoke in the hallway. The hallway occupies approximately 20 feet of space from the front door of the museum to the front door of the mall.

“I came out and I couldn’t see,” he said again.

Baker and the two women — he believed one to be in her 60s and the other to be in her 20s — and the five-year-old child, retreated back into the museum to regroup. They just couldn’t figure out at this point where the smoke was coming from, Baker said, and he was unclear as to whether he should go forward or back.

Baker said he called 911 and spoke to an operator who told him that officials had already been dispatched to the scene. Baker informed the 911 operator as to his location in the building and explained the smoke was overwhelming him and he just wanted to know which way he should go to get out. The emergency operator was unclear of the building’s layout, according to Baker.

“Let’s crawl out of here,” he finally suggested to the women. So while they got on their hands and knees and made for the mall exit with the child, Clinton put his shirt over his nose and mouth and walked to the door. He said he was never frightened, just concerned because he couldn’t see and couldn’t judge the direction of the fire.

He said after that the group got out safely, but in all the confusion the women disappeared and he has not heard from or seen any of them since the incident.

Baker said with all the smoke, water and soot in the ceiling, he is surprised there wasn’t more damage to the museum. Baker said he believes that the museum should be able to reopen in the near future.

The Sunday after the fire, several Shriners gathered at the opening of their storage shed, very near where the fire originated.

“Welcome to our world of misery,” one of them said. Their faces told the story of their likely losses, one being the huge BINGO hall the group ran.

At that time on Sunday, smoke was still streaming out of the roof over where the BINGO hall is located and it was clear the BINGO hall had suffered smoke and water damage. What is unclear is whether the Shriners will have a place to meet, store their belongings and hold BINGO games.

GPAC, which formed a little more than a year ago following the recommendations of the Picayune City Council and Picayune Main Street, occupied several rooms within the mall. The two old movie theaters behind GPAC’s space were envisioned as a place that would eventually be renovated into a community theatre. The fire took both theaters and soot and water now cover most of GPAC’s stored belongings.

Members of GPAC, however, are determined not to let the fire deter the artistic movement which has been given greater focus in the community by its presence.

“The response to GPAC and Blues-Out in the community was positive,” said GPAC member Rose Schram.

During a meeting on Thursday, which took place at the Picayune’s new Intermodal Center on U.S. Highway11, Greater Picayune Arts Council discussed several alternatives for temporary meeting spaces — a handful of churches have already offered space — and some members provided some ideas for a more permanent solution that have to be weighed and decided on.

Donna Aguilard, GPAC’s treasurer, headed up a small group of members that was going to go out to the Mall on Friday morning and take an inventory of GPAC’s belongings and photos for insurance purposes. The items were then going to be moved on Saturday to a storage facility donated to the group for one month by Jimmy Stockstill.

Martha Sheppard, a major force in bringing the arts council to Picayune and arranging for the Mississippi Mall to be a home for cultural events in the community, is convinced the mall will be able to be salvaged. She was in attendance at the GPAC meeting on Thursday.

“There’s a lot of hope for a lot of things,” Sheppard said.

Reba Beebe, Picayune Main Street manager, who also sat in on the GPAC meeting on Thursday, reported that the insurance adjustors had been inside the mall — which was insured by the city — but had not yet made any offers. “I still don’t know anything,” she said.

While it is still unclear as to whether these three groups will continue to have a home in the mall, it is clear that though fire may destroy lots of things, it cannot destroy determination.