ss

JENNIFER HARRIS/ The Warren Record

Firefighters from across Warren County began responding to this fire at Milano’s Italian Restaurant on Warrenton’s North Main Street around 5 a.m. Friday. Here, the second floor of the 1920’s building has just come crashing down inside. Less than 20 minutes later, the front left section of the white brick above the sign fell to the sidewalk.

 

“I can’t say enough about the heroism of our fire departments,” said Susan Harris, owner of Quilt Lizzy. “There is a God in heaven.”

Harris was still emotional three days after the fire that began on May 29 and destroyed Milano’s Italian Restaurant. The popular eatery at the corner of Macon and North Main had been in business since 1997, housed in a historic brick building constructed in 1920.

The fire also caused significant damage to CC’s Showers of Distinction next door and some to Quilt Lizzy’s metal roof from hot falling bricks. If not for the early call and the quick response, Main Street might have incurred much more damage. 

According to Walter Gardner, chief of the Warrenton Rural Vol. Fire Department, the blaze began in the back of the building, but the cause has yet to be determined. Gardner said a Danny Smith was the first to call in and report seeing smoke at 4:56 a.m.

More than 100 volunteer firefighters from 13 departments across Warren County and four departments out of county contributed to the collective effort to extinguish the flames and save other Main Street businesses from suffering a similar fate. 

“This is why it’s so important to support your local fire department,” said Harris. “They were there quickly, and they are professionally trained. Wait till it’s your building." 

Community spirit

During a difficult time when tensions are running high across the country, the Warren County community gathered to bear witness to the blaze and support the owners of the two businesses most affected: Ahmed Ibrahim, the owner of Milano’s, along with Carolyn Cheek, owner of CC’s. 

Soon after images from the scene were first posted on The Warren Record’s Facebook page asking for supplies, donations of water and food quickly began coming in. 

One woman brought the first of many cases of water. Hardware Café contributed sandwiches, muffins, apples, bathroom access, tables and chairs. A $100 gift certificate was purchased from Drip Coffee and Market to pay for anything the firefighters wanted. Chick-fil-A of Henderson brought food, and Norlina Food Lion donated drinks, while numerous others stepped up and answered the call to keep the firefighters fed and hydrated as they fought to keep the fire under control and save the downtown, which was partially destroyed by fire in 1881. 

The practice of social distancing was abandoned for the day as residents hugged one another, sharing sympathies with a distraught Ahmed, along with memories of the popular pizza place and Rose’s Five and Dime, which had occupied the corner building for many years before that. 

Linda Solomon, who moved to Warrenton 11 months ago from South Hill, Va., was among Milano’s customers who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. She ate at the restaurant a lot and said she liked pretty much everything on the menu, especially the stromboli. 

“I’m just glad nobody was in there,” she said. “Nobody likes to cook. I guess I’ll just pull my grill out in the back now.”

Ahmed was working with the town of Warrenton, which had secured a grant to renovate the building across the street for the restaurant’s new location, but rehab work had been delayed. 

A GoFundMe page has been set up to offer some assistance in getting both Milano’s and CC’s back on their feet. At press time, $6,455 of the $100,000 goal had been raised for Milano’s and $2,155 of the $80,000 goal for CC’s.  To make a donation for either cause, go to gofundme.com and search for Help Rebuild Milano’s and Help Rebuild CC’s.

How the fire was fought

After the initial fire call went out, Captain John Franks with the Warrenton Rural Vol. Fire Department said he arrived in his car on North Main Street to a thick fog of smoke. 

He stopped in front of Milano’s to perform a walk-around and report back on his radio to other responding firefighters. The windows on the first floor were completely black, and black smoke was coming from around the edges of the boarded up second-floor windows. 

At the back of the building, Franks said the fire had ventilated itself by burning through the plywood on the first upper window, but there was no fire showing by CC’s, which shares a firewall with Milano’s.

Chief Gardner and Captain Joel Bartholomew with Warrenton Rural were among three firefighters on the first fire engine to arrive on scene and took command. Bartholomew, a battalion chief with the Henderson Fire Department, was operations officer during the fire. 

Gardner said an initial attack on the first floor was attempted.

“Thermal imaging technology indicated there was no fire on the ground level, and there was a tremendous amount of heat,” he said. “(The firefighters) could hear it crackling and stuff falling upstairs.”

Gardner said that three departments eventually had water on the fire from their aerial trucks—Warrenton Rural, Oxford and South Hill, Va.

“Aerials were the key to stopping it where it stopped,” he said. “We could have easily lost that block all the way to Pete Smith (Tire & Quick Lube), including Quilt Lizzy and Jim Sondgeroth’s building (behind Milano’s).”

Multiple departments used tankers lined up and down North Main in a water-hauling process so the aerials could work the hydrant system. 

“Afton-Elberon (fire department) uses a water hauling system just as much as anybody in this county, and that’s who we put in charge of doing it,” Gardner said.

Bringing the building down

After a high-pressure hose took down the second story brick wall facing Macon Street, an excavator arrived on scene to deal with the remainder of the structure facing Main Street. 

Following some discussion about how to navigate around the power lines and the best place to apply pressure to the wall, the last of the historic building twisted in on itself and came crashing down at 1 p.m.

The site was monitored for the rest of the day and into Saturday to ensure no flare-ups occurred, but one occurred at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning. 

Fortunately, one firefighter had volunteered to stay with a truck downtown overnight. 

D.K. Trotman, 19, a member of both the Norlina and Warrenton Rural departments, said he had an eerie feeling that something would happen. He said what sounded like an explosion broke the early-morning silence shortly before 3 a.m., and there was fire all along the firewall by CC’s. 

He put out the call for help and multiple departments responded, preventing the fire from spreading further.  

At the request of Gardner, an investigation into the cause of the fire is being conducted by Office of the State Fire Marshal, the State Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Investigators were on site Friday conducting interviews and inspecting the site from an aerial truck. A report is expected soon.

Residents reflect and remember 

Al Fleming, something of a town historian, has lived here all his life. His grandfather, Lancaster, had a store in the same location as Milano's in the 1880s. That building was torn down and the one that became Milano’s was built in 1920. 

Fleming says it was first a funeral home and then a furniture store before it became Rose’s Five and Dime. It was later owned by Gladys and Macon Wemyss, who had a florist there, before it was sold to the group who opened Milano's.

“I sincerely hope something else can go in there,” Fleming said from his office on Bragg Street. “When one person loses something like this it affects the whole town. We need all the business we can get on Main Street. We have a lot of faith in Warrenton.”  

As updates on the fire were posted on The Warren Record’s Facebook page, many people made comments.

“My grandmother and I would come downtown to Warrenton every Saturday and say hello to just about everybody in town,” wrote Deborah Young. “Such sweet memories. It will be missed.”

Terry Loyd wrote, “This is truly a loss. I used to come down from Washington, DC to visit my relatives in Warrenton and always ate at Milano’s. I have nothing but fond memories of this place. I’ve been eating there probably since 1998. Such a sad day.”

“We would always stop there to eat,” wrote Glenda Piper Leggett. “One of our favorite places.” 

Megan Taber, owner of Drip, wrote, “We have received a very generous donation from a customer of ours to help feed the amazing men and women who are working and helping the fire today. First responders and support teams come see us!”

“On behalf of all the FD we thank you for your generosity,” responded Scott Wheeler 

Robby Ross wrote, “As a firefighter that took advantage of this for iced coffee, thanks to the kind soul who did this.”

“I am so sorry,” wrote Kathy Jenkins Keeter. “This building has been here all my life. We used to leave the lake and come to Warrenton to the hardware store. Hope no one was injured.”

Barbara Brayboy wrote, “This makes me so sad. That building has been there all of my life and longer I am almost sure.”

“If you want to see the good in humanity, turn off your TV, get off the Internet, and look to your small town communities,” wrote Brian Riggan. “No black or white or brown, just people looking out for each other.”

Responding agencies

Many agencies and individuals responded to the call for help at Friday’s fire. Among them are: Warren County volunteer fire departments: Afton-Elberon, Arcola, Churchill-Five Forks, Drewry, Hawtree, Inez, Longbridge, Macon Rural, Norlina, Ridgeway, Roanoke-Wildwood, Soul City, and Warrenton Rural; Oxford Fire Department (aerial), Cokesbury Fire Department and South Hill (Va.) Fire Department (aerial); Palmer Springs (Va.) Fire Department, which responded to a fire call in Norlina mutual aid, then came to Warrenton; Warren County Emergency Services.

Warren County Emergency Medical Services; Vance County and Northampton County Emergency Medical Services, which sent ambulances to back up Warren County.

Warren County E-911 Communications, Warrenton Police Department, Norlina Police Department, Warren County Sheriffs Office, N.C. Highway Patrol.

N.C. Department of Transportation, which provided a backhoe and assisted with traffic control; county and town of Warrenton staff, who assisted throughout the day.

Local business owners Mark Czysz, Jim Sondgeroth and Jimmy Harris, who collaborated with others on the plan for safely bringing down the Milano’s building.

Kenny Hawkins of Macon, owner of KPH Paving & Landscaping, which furnished a dump truck at no charge to haul off debris, and Fred’s Towing of Henderson, which brought the excavator to the site at no charge.

Others who provided assistance and wish to be recognized in the newspaper are asked to contact us at 252-257-3341 or by email at news@warrenrecord.com.