The 200 block of Prince Street in the Historic District of downtown Tappahannock was forever changed Friday, July 15, by a raging fire that destroyed or damaged up to a dozen structures including those that housed popular businesses.
Impacted businesses included Martin-Sale Furniture Company and its warehouses as well as those within the Derieux Buildings (Prince Street Café, Tiffany Properties, and The Rivah Hair Studio), which was also home to George Jennings’ Art Studio. An apartment above that building was also destroyed.
“Everything is such a complete loss,” said Hannah Tiffany of Tiffany Properties. “George lost a lifetime of paintings and Iris (Washington) lost her home. (Prince Street Café owner) Maria (Haines) lost her entire business. My business is fairly transportable, but those other businesses suffered huge losses.”
Martin-Sale had the following post on its Facebook page Saturday: “We appreciate everyone’s continued thoughts and prayers for our family and our business! We pray for all others affected by this fire, other businesses, and those who lost their homes!”
There were no injuries in the blaze, but Tappahannock Essex Volunteer Fire Department Chief Paul Richardson said five firefighters were transported to VCU Tappahannock Hospital due to heat exhaustion.
Richarson said the cause of the fire is undetermined. The Timeline
The conflagration began around 11:15 a.m. when an alarm in a Martin-Sale building indicated there was a fire on the second story, Richardson said. The fire chief said when the first firemen arrived they noticed the second story ablaze but were unable to attack the interior of the structure due to the amount of furniture and other materials inside the building.
“The fire began to spread pretty fast from that point on,” Richardson said.
As the fire spread, propane tanks — each holding 500 gallons — exploded near the buildings.
Fire companies from seven counties — some from as far away as Henrico and New Kent — responded with mutual aid as over 100 firefighters battled the flames until it was finally under control around 2 p.m.
“In all the years I’ve been in fire service we knew if Martin-Sale caught on fire we would have to protect the exposures and let that go,” Richardson explained. “That’s what happened.” Ritchie House Saved
One of the primary issues that the fire companies encountered was water supply. Ultimately, tankers were directed to the nearby Rappahannock River and pumped water through lines connected to other fire engines.
That enabled the command team to strategically place three ladder trucks at the west end of the block. Those units pumped up to 1,000 gallons of water per minute on the Derieux Buildings. That strategy saved the Ritchie House, which dates back to the early 18th Century, from destruction. The Ritchie House is home to Dillard and Katona Law Offices.
“We’re grateful and blessed to have such great firefighters,” Scot Katona said. “I can’t say enough about the job they did. What little damage we sustained pales in comparison to what everyone else had. We’re just really blessed, fortunate, and grateful.” EMS Chief Reports
Interim Emergency Services Chief Tommy Hicks noted that the volume of fire and the ability to get resources to the site proved challenging. The Virginia Department of Transportation closed the Downing Bridge and only emergency services were allowed to cross from the Northern Neck. The bridge was closed for approximately five hours.
“We were fortunate to get the resources and personnel to the site,” Hicks said. “They collaborated well together and once they got here things went well.”
Hicks said safety was his major concern throughout the event.
“It was hot and I was worried about the personnel operating at the scene, not only from a heat exhaustion standpoint but from the risk of fighting a fire near propane tanks,” he said. “A lot of energy was spent making sure everyone stayed safe.”
Hicks reported that overnight the command operation was transferred to Suffolk Fire Company who sent a battalion chief and crews to the site.
“They managed the scene overnight, allowing our first responders to rehab so they were available (Saturday),” Hicks said.
At 7 a.m. Saturday, scene command transitioned back to local resources.
Hicks said Saturday’s activities included a complete overhaul of the scene to make sure there were no additional burning concerns.
“We worked with the propane companies and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to make sure there was no type of hazardous materials at the scene,” he reported. “The propane companies began to remove the tanks from the scene Friday night.”
Moreover, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Emergency Management reviewed the site to ensure there was no contamination or storm water runoff.
“We wanted to make sure that square was safe on the environmental side,” Hicks said.
Also, the Dominion Energy Virginia restored power to the community and Breezeline was on site to reinstall its fiber optic lines. The Virginia Department of Transportation closed down side streets and assisted with traffic control.
Hicks also noted that local elected officials have collaborated to determine the needs of those impacted by the blaze.
“We want to provide them some support and guidance on what’s next,” Hicks stated. “Our community support has been simply overwhelming.”
Hicks said his organization’s primary concern has been ensuring safety at the scene and reopening that portion of Prince Street so businesses that were not impacted can reopen.
“Everyone has been great to communicate with and discuss possible solutions,” Hicks remarked. “It’s been great to see that level of leadership within our community.”
Additionally, Hicks said the American Red Cross sent representatives here to assist displaced businesses and residents.
Local Officials Respond
“It was devastating, especially to the businesses and residents of Prince Street,” Tappahannock Mayor Roy M. Gladding said. “I really feel bad for Suzanne (Derieux) because that was an historical building. George Jennings lost all of his artwork. There have been many, many good experiences on that street but they’ve turned into nothing but memories now.”
Gladding also praised the fire companies and the community for their roles during Friday’s traumatic event.
“Everybody in this community pulled together,” he said. “What a display of citizenship by our citizens and businesses. They stepped up in a crisis like this and we will continue to need their support.”
“This was certainly a tragic event,” said Essex Board of Supervisors Chairman Rob Akers, who represents the Greater Tappahannock Voting District. “Thank fully, we’ve had great support from surrounding communities that helped us contain such an outrageous fire. Many thanks go out to the community and businesses that have donated food, water, and ice. It just shows the strength of a small town community.”
“To see these friendly, local businesses go down is heartbreaking,” said Essex County Sheriff Arnie Holmes, whose office sits less than a block from the scene of destruction. “I’ve always said this county has some of the best citizens around, but the support we received from other communities shows what can be accomplished through teamwork.”
“All I could think about was getting everyone out of the courthouse and away from Prince Street for their personal safety,” Essex County Clerk of the Circuit Court Gayle Ashworth told the Rappahannock Times. “I have worked on Prince Street for 40 plus years and have so many wonderful memories, good times, and friends in those businesses. It still seems hard to believe. I am so thankful the courthouse is still there and was not affected. My heart goes out to the business owners and land owners who lost everything. Thank goodness for our fire department, sheriff’s office, and town police who worked tirelessly to try and save our Prince Street. A big thank you to the counties that came to our rescue.”
Friday’s fire was the third major blaze in the history of the downtown area since Tappahannock was found ed. The British set fire to several buildings (Dec. 2, 1814) during the War of 1812 and a June 1917 blaze destroyed the same block that was devastated Friday.
Local historian Wesley Pippenger provided the following summary of building damage:
• Ritchie House, east wing, roof damaged (1);
• The Rivah Hair Studio (2);
• Tiffany Properties (3);
• Prince Street Cafe (4);
• Separate building behind, accessible from alley adjacent to gas station off Queen Street (5);
• George Jennings office, atop of which was the apartment where Iris Washington lived (6, 7);
• Martin Sale Furniture, multiple buildings including two different storehouses (8 (three original buildings that they combined), 9, 10);
• Private residence on Water Lane attached to the old Parsonage (11);
• Parsonage old Clanton House on the corner of Queen and Water, white and yellow (12).
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