DECATUR — Mark Hunter worked for years to acquire a building along Grand Avenue to house his construction business.
On Saturday afternoon, he could only watch as flames from three adjacent buildings threatened to take away all that he had worked for.
“I finally get them and and now I got to watch this,” Hunter said, referring to a three-alarm warehouse fire at East Grand Avenue and North Calhoun Street in Decatur.
Flames pierced through the roofs of three commercial structures, sending thick plumes of smoke into the sky that could be seen for miles.
"It was a big, thick cloud of smoke right to the point where you couldn't even see the sun," said Marvin Johnson, who works in the building just to the east. "It looked like a full moon at nighttime, but it was broad daylight at the time."
Hunter received a call about the fire from friends in the neighborhood and saw the black smoke as he crossed the bridges over Lake Decatur along Reas Bridge Road.
“It was the thickest black smoke, and the closer I got … the worst thoughts went through my mind,” Hunter said.
After spending more than an hour watching the flames spread through the neighboring structures, and heat from the fire igniting the door to his business, the sense of despair slowly gave way to hope as the flames subsided and his building was still intact.
“My building would be gone if it weren’t for the Decatur Fire Department,” he said, sharing a personal word of thanks with Fire Chief Jeff Abbott after things calmed down a bit.
Abbott said the fire started in the northwest corner of the building near Calhoun and East Locust streets and moved southward toward Grand Avenue.
“It started at the other end of the block,” Abbott said as he stood along Grand Avenue. “The wind was moving pretty good, pushing it through. It came down to this building here (at the corner of Calhoun and Grand) and once it had an opening, the wind was pushing it through the whole building.”
With the warehouse buildings deemed a total loss, Abbott said attention turned to preventing the spread of the fire to a fourth structure.
“All city fire trucks are here right now,” he said. “Basically we were trying to get on all four corners of this building and keep it from spreading anymore.” Fire departments from surrounding communities covered Decatur firehouses while crews worked to extinguish the fire.
The fire was the coming out party for Truck 2, the department’s newest ladder truck, which was stationed on North Illinois Street where it initially was used to extinguish a fire to a structure to the rear of Hunter’s building. When that fire was out and the buildings to the west were ablaze, it was used to douse the roof of Hunter’s building with a continuous flow of water.
Abbott said the State Fire Marshal's Office has been called in to investigate the cause of the fire.
The remaining structures were owned by Gulfco, a limited liability corporation based in Palos Hills. According to the company's website, it is a service specializing in maritime security and "is uniquely situated to conduct business in the State of Kuwait and throughout the Gulf Region."
It is unclear what the company used the Decatur facility for. It was just recently purchased, with Macon County property records showing an April 1 sale for $50,000.
“I stood right there watching that building go down and now I’m watching the building on the other side go down,” Hunter said.
“This building now has survived two of the biggest fires in the past 10 years and so it’s a pretty tough building,” Abbott said of Hunter’s building.
Brenden Moore contributed to this report.