CHARLES TOWN – Roof-repair workers using a welding torch started a three-alarm fire last Thursday that caused extensive damage to a longtime Ford dealership in downtown Charles Town.
The roof exterior at the Thomassen Ford dealership at North West and Washington streets caught fire at about 12:30 p.m. Under a thick plume of black smoke, the blaze spread to the brick building’s second floor directly below the roof before firefighters could douse the flames.
“There were workers [and dealership employees] there that attempted to put the fire out by using extinguishers prior to our arrival, which unfortunately did not work,” said Adam Watson, fire chief for the Independent Fire Co. in Ranson.
A roofing worker was taken to Jefferson Memorial Hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, but the person’s injuries were not life-threatening, said Watson and Bill Thomassen, a 42-year proprietor of the family-run dealership.
The fire damage was contained mostly to the roof and a second-floor office and an auto parts storage area, Thomassen and Watson said. However, smoke and water from fire hoses caused considerable damage throughout the 28,000-square-foot building. A basement storage area was mostly undamaged.
One vehicle owned by Charles Town’s government received water damage, but no other vehicle owned by customers’ was damaged, Thomassen said.
The dealership’s building won’t be reoccupied without a new roof and considerable repairs inside, Watson said. “This building won’t be open for a while,” Thomassen agreed.
Kristina Locke, a cleaning crew member for the dealership, said she was in the building’s basement when the fire broke out. “I just heard everybody saying, ‘Fire!’” she said, “and I ran up to see what the commotion was and it was all smokey and I just ran outside.”
“Everybody acted quickly,” she added.
About 15 people work at the dealership, Thomassen said. Those employees will be laid off until damage claims with three different insurance carriers are resolved and a new location to reopen his dealership can be found, he said.
A crew had been working for two weeks or more to replace the dealership building’s flat roof, Locke said. “They were in the last section,” she said.
About 50 area firefighters responded to the blaze, which took firefighters about 90 minutes to extinguish, Watson said.
Two ladder trucks were used to help fight the fire, and extra precautions were followed to keep firefighters safe, Watson said. Unfinished roof repairs in addition to the fire increased the risk of a roof collapse, he said.
“We were concerned with the stability of the roof,” he said.
Electricity was temporarily cut to several power lines surrounding the building to allow firefighters to work safely on the ladder trucks, Watson said. About 600 surrounding homes and businesses were affected, he said.
Special firefighting measures also were taken because of chemicals contained in some of the auto parts stored in the building, Watson said. “We did use foam to help extinguish it,” he said. “Because it’s a dealership, they keep a certain amount of auto parts stored for themselves.”
The Thomassen’s dealership includes a vehicle repair and service shop as well as a showroom for selling new and used cars and trucks. In a plate-glass window in the building hung a banner promoting a “Built for the Holidays Sales Event.”
“We all got out alive,” said Locke, who lives in Middleway. “That’s what matters. All that stuff can be replaced.”
Firefighters from all seven county volunteer fire companies responded to the commercial blaze. Firefighters from an Air National Guard unit stationed at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in Berkeley County and from Loudoun and Frederick counties in Virginia also assisted.