Mississippi Mall burns

Published 3:37 am Sunday, June 14, 2009

Part of Mississippi Mall burned Saturday afternoon, almost burning the whole building down.

Picayune’s and almost every county volunteer fire department worked the fire at National Home Furnishings in an effort to keep the whole building from burning. National Home Furnishings was part of the historic Mississippi Mall off of Memorial Boulevard. Fire Chief Keith Brown said the fire fighters focused most of their efforts on keeping the fire contained because National Home Furnishings was too far gone.

Fire Marshal Pat Weaver said there was an initial effort to put the internal fire out of the furniture store, but it was called off for the fire fighter’s safety. With the large fuel load consisting of an entire stock of furniture in the building the department did not want to take the unnecessary risk of sending in fire fighters.

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The fire was called into 911 by any number of community members but customers patronizing the Mexican Restaurant across the parking lot were some of the first to see it. El Mariachi owner Jose Gutierrez said the smoke coming from the furniture store caused him to lose business as it entered his restaurant.

Gutierrez was at home when he saw the smoke billowing up in the sky. He said the smoke appeared to be coming from his restaurant so he called his employees to ask if it was on fire. After he found out the fire was at the furniture store he drove to the restaurant and called 911. When he arrived he watched the smoke pour from the building and Gutierrez recalled some sort of explosion taking place inside the building.

“It looked like the end of the world,” Gutierrez said.

The fire caused him to shut down the restaurant when the power was cut to the area for fire fighter’s safety.

“I’m glad it was not my building,” Gutierrez said.

Weaver could not say what the cause of the fire was until he gets access to the building. That won’t happen until the fire is completely out, and then it might be a lengthy process.

“It’s going to be hard digging in this,” Weaver said.

Weaver said he could not say when he would be able to establish a cause of the fire. Determining a cause for the fire will be a chore with the collapsed roof and other hazards.

The building, built back in the late 60’s or early 70’s, did not have a sprinkler system, Weaver said. It has housed a number of stores in the past years including, Grants, Murphy’s and even a Winn-Dixie, he said. Former fire fighter turned county supervisor J. Patrick Lee said he remembers that the building caught fire about 10 years ago, except that fire was on the south end of the building. Lee described the previous fire as moderate in size.

The building also did not have any insurance, said National Home Furnishings owner, J.J. Eugeron. Eugeron said he was in the process of applying for some financing to renovate the building but was not able to secure enough before the fire took place Saturday. A past city council meeting dealt with some available money that possibly would be used to renovate the Mississippi Mall.

City Manager Harvey Miller said there is some insurance money the city is attempting to collect on, but since it is still in pending litigation he could not comment further.

Fortunately no one was inside the store when the fire took place. Eugeron said the store closed at 3 p.m. He said he had no idea what could have started the fire.

Fire fighters were still climbing on the roof and putting out hot spots by 8 p.m.

“I just hope nobody gets hurt, that’s the most important thing,” Eugeron said.

Weaver said fire fighters planned to work the fire late into the night to ensure all the hot spots were put out to keep the fire from flaring back up.