An unlikely neighborhood success story may have gone up in smoke on the coldest day of the year.
Marcell's Hemp and Latte House, the latest in a series of businesses to occupy a corner-market building at 3100 Columbia St., was filled with fire and smoke early Wednesday afternoon. It was a two-alarm fire, according to firefighter-spokesman Jim Flaherty of the Vancouver Fire Department, with six engine trucks and two ladder trucks on the scene, along with dozens of firefighters with heavy equipment and oxygen tanks, backup from Fire District 6 in Hazel Dell, and Vancouver police blocking traffic for several blocks around.
Pedestrians gathered behind yellow tape while firefighters climbed ladders and punched holes in the green metal roof of the old building, formerly known as the Carter Park store. They poured water into the attic through what are called piercing nozzles, Flaherty said, while other firefighters were inside, chasing the fire from room to room. Meanwhile, smoke poured from every upstairs window and roof seam.
Because of the 30-degree cold, Flaherty said, firefighters were under extra stress: "Look at that guy," he said of one firefighter who emerged from the building completely soaked. "He just came out of extreme heat and now he's probably freezing. There's a fatigue factor."
As firefighters swarmed the building, he said, battalion chiefs and safety officers were watching from all sides for signs of growing danger.
Records show the building has been a neighborhood grocery store as far back as 1931.
'Heart of our neighborhood'
The timing couldn't have been worse: co-owner Marcell Gareis said the place recently celebrated its first anniversary. Today was supposed to be the day Marcell's Hemp and Latte House unveiled a new menu of full-service breakfasts and lunches. In fact, Gareis said she was elsewhere preparing for today's rollout when she heard about the fire.
"Everything was going so well," she said Wednesday while watching the fire from the sidewalk. "I was working on menus and we just got a $1,000 food shipment for tomorrow."
Even as a county health inspector was on the scene at midday, workers at the Marcell's Hemp and Latte House noticed that a fire in one of their fireplaces was a little smoky. They didn't worry too much, though, because the flue had just been inspected by a chimney sweep the previous week.
But Executive Chef Bob Kwiatkowksi poked around anyway — and discovered a side room full of smoke. He called 911 immediately, he said. Flaherty said the call came at 1:26 p.m.
"The fire department was really quick on the scene," Kwiatkowski said. "But by then smoke was billowing out the front door and the attic was roaring." Kwiatkowski said he thinks the fire probably started in the attic. Flaherty said it's still too early to say for sure.
Gareis said her son, Ryan, was living in the attic and helping manage the place.
"We just had the heart of our neighborhood ripped out," said Glenna Bowman, president of the Carter Park Neighborhood Association. Last year, Carter Park supported a zone change that allowed what had been a succession of small markets — with names like Debbie's Corner Market, Your Corner Market and even Freedom Fruit — to become a sit-down restaurant and retail shop featuring books and handmade crafts and fashions.
"She has done absolutely everything right," said Bowman.
"It was very clean and everybody loved the place," said Brian Shaffer, a dentist whose office is diagonally across the street from Marcell's. "It was the first place in years you felt good about going into."
"They put a ton of effort into fixing it up," said Chris White, who's lived in the neighborhood for six years. "There was a rotation of business after business, and then it was this great coffee house. It's a shame that something like this happens."
Friends offered help as they embraced Gareis and her business partner, Brad Stahlberger, on the sidewalk.
"We've all seen it, how hard they worked," said Tara Sandvig, who lives a block away. "We would go by and she'd be doing the work — herself." Sandvig said she has skilled friends who could help with remodeling and woodworking.
"If you need anything, let us know," Sandvig's roommate, Rebecca Alston, told Gareis.
Gareis said it was too soon to know anything about the future. The building is the property of Vancouver resident Larry Patella, and she's not sure what he will want to do with it, she said.
"Today is just weird," she said.