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DECATUR – Kemper Willcut II expected Friday to be a busy day filling last-minute Easter orders.

Instead, it was spent cleaning up from an overnight fire that will keep Del's Popcorn Shop, 142 N. Merchant St., closed for an undetermined amount of time.

Willcut said he was awakened by a call around 1 a.m. from his cousin telling him about the fire.

While his thoughts could have gone immediately to concern about his business on one of its busiest weeks, he instead worried about the welfare of the people who live in the apartments in the block and their safety.

“I can replace the material things,” he said.

There were no reports of tenants of the neighboring apartments being injured by the smoke or fire.

While it's still too early to say when, Willcut said the business will reopen.

Willcut said this wasn't Del's first brush with fire. He said the business moved from across the street to its current location after a fire. He didn't have all the details, but was a little more interested in finding them out now.

Willcut couldn't say enough about his staff, most of whom came to the scene as soon as they heard about the fire and had since gone to his home to answer business calls that had been routed there and reaching out to customers expecting orders to be delivered.

The neighborly aspect of Merchant Street was on full display within hours, as fellow business owners brought food and drink to friends they knew had been up all night and asking if there was anything they could do to help.

The fire, which was contained to the rear of the building, was reported shortly after midnight.

Decatur Fire Department personnel arrived to find a dumpster behind the business on fire and the flames climbing the wall toward the second floor. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Battalion Chief Todd McKenzie said it appears the fire breached the building where the electricity enters the structure. Sprinklers were able to prevent the spread of the fire to the front of the building, but the entry point provided a pathway to the second floor, which is used for storage.

Willcut said early descriptions from the scene describe power lines arcing as they struck the burning dumpster, creating bright flashes and pops that looked and sounded like fireworks going off in the alley behind the store.

The fire was contained to the one building, with neighboring businesses suffering smoke damage.

McKenzie said 30 firefighters and eight trucks were on the scene and off-duty personnel were called in to staff the firehouses in the event of another fire elsewhere. They cleared the scene at 4:32 a.m.

McKenzie said one firefighter was taken to a hospital and treated and released for a back injury.

“It definitely could have been much worse,” McKenzie said, noting concern about the fire spreading to neighboring buildings.

Like Willcut, Brent Sloan learned about the fire from a family member. He said he was awaken around 3 a.m. to the sound of his mother-in-law rattling his front door.

He arrived downtown to find the area full of smoke and his business, Sloan's Calzones, and the rest of the block intact.

“There was a lot of relief,” he said.

The smoke posed a special challenge to restaurants in the area, as the Macon County Health Department conducted inspections and mandated certain steps be taken to clean the businesses and discard certain items before they could open.

Sloan's Calzones and the other restaurants in the block appeared to be operating close to normal over the noon hour.

“Everybody got lucky with this,” said John Redden, owner of TapRoot.

The bar section of the restaurant was open Friday afternoon with the regular menu available.

As employees helped to clean up and rid the business of the lingering smell of smoke, Redden hoped to have the entire restaurant opened today.

For Marina Loehr, the already scheduled off-day became a clean-up day.

Scheduled to be closed in observance of Good Friday, Loehr spent Friday morning lighting candles in her store and opening the doors to get the smell of smoke out of the business.

After a look around the store, she was optimistic there was no damage to any of the structure or the collection of dresses.

By lunchtime, all appeared normal on Merchant Street. The only indication that something had happened just a few hours earlier were the small notes in the covered windows at Del's that read: “Due to a fire, we will be closed until further notice. Thank you for understanding. The Del's Team.”

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Deputy Night Editor

Deputy night editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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