Following two fires in downtown within a couple of weeks, North Vernon residents had to find a way to rise above the rubble.
Both fires were in the same area, but the second one — on Nov. 21 — took the work of 13 departments to extinguish, resulted in two buildings collapsing and was ruled arson.
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That left a gaping hole in the historic downtown, and an 8-foot tall wooden barricade was placed around the rubble.
To add some color to downtown, Joanne Campbell, wife of Mayor Harold “Soup” Campbell, asked Janet McIntosh and Briana Barger about painting a mural on the barricade to make it look better for the Christmas in the City celebration.
McIntosh and Barger agreed to do it, and after eight hours Nov. 28 on a 30-degree day, a scene from Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was painted on the barricade.
“The first message that we got about that, the lady said, ‘Thank you for making our city pretty again,’” Joanne Campbell said. “I think that’s what I hope is that people don’t look at the wall and think of what’s bad. It’s just that bad things happen, and we have to rise above it.”
A few days before the second fire, McIntosh and Barger, who both work for the North Vernon Plain Dealer and Sun newspaper, had helped paint the downtown windows for Christmas in the City. Campbell received a grant from the community foundation for the paint.
They ended up with leftover paint, so they used that for the mural. They went with the Grinch scene to go along with a float in the Christmas in the City parade, which traveled through downtown.
“We talked about a cityscape, maybe doing something to make it look vintage, like it used to look,” McIntosh said. “Then we found out it was arson, and we thought that would be bad taste, so we went to the opposite extreme. We thought it would just be something whimsical and something that’s cheerful.”
Christmas in the City went on as planned Nov. 29, and people came downtown to check out the food and craft booths, take pictures with Santa and watch the parade.
“We considered canceling it briefly, but you’ve got to move on,” Joanne Campbell said. “I think had someone perished in the fire, we maybe would not have gone ahead with it. But luckily, we only had minor injuries and just property damage.”
Train rides, though, were moved to this Saturday. Joanne Campbell said the nearly 20 families displaced by the fires will ride the train for free, and they also are invited to watch a
movie at Park Theatre
“Our Christmas in the City turned out wonderfully. We’ve had a lot of good feedback on it,” Joanne Campbell said. “You have to explain to your children that these things happen and that you have to accept it and you move on with it and you try to make something good.”
The morning of the second fire, Barger was on her way to work from Commiskey, about 15 minutes south of North Vernon. She had no idea what was going on a block from the newspaper office.
“As soon as I hit Vernon, you could see the smoke, so I knew something huge was happening,” she said.
Once she reached the office, she immediately grabbed a camera and got as close to the scene as she could.
“As soon as I saw it, my first thought was it was arson,” Barger said. “Everything about it seemed off, and then how huge it was, how fast it happened. I wasn’t surprised at all when I heard it was arson.”
McIntosh grew up in New England and said she had seen big fires before. But this one stood out, she said, because of all of the fire departments coming together to battle the blaze.
“It was phenomenal,” she said. “They were just impressive.”
But McIntosh said it was heartbreaking to see buildings that are more than 100 years old go up in flames and crumble to the ground.
Façade work had just been completed on buildings in that block as part of a project awarded to North Vernon through the Indiana Stellar Communities Program three years ago. Work was about to begin on the streetscape, but that is now being halted until at least the spring.
Joanne Campbell said the buildings also had metal ceilings.
“They are antique now. They don’t make them. The (building) that collapsed had a really pretty one,” she said of the ceilings. “It’s something you can’t get back. Even if you try to restore it, you’re not going to get back your history, which is really the saddest part, I think, for most people who have always lived here.”
The fire was disheartening for Joanne Campbell and Barger, who both grew up in North Vernon.
“As long as I’ve lived here, I’ve always wanted to see all of those buildings get fixed up,” Barger said. “I just see the potential this town can be, and I’ve always wanted it to become more. Just seeing a huge chunk of it be taken away so that there’s no hope for that now, it’s depressing.”
Joanne Campbell said after the second fire, she immediately thought, “Why?”
“It was a really sad day for anybody who has lived here because this is our town, and we’re happy, and we love our town,” she said. “We were all concerned about who might be in the buildings or what might be dug up after the collapse. Fortunately, it was just all property damage. I felt so sorry for the people who lost their properties that we were trying to improve.”
Learning a few days later that it was arson was hard to accept, she said.
“I think it would have been easier to cope with if you would have known it was just an accident or it was just electricity,” Joanne Campbell said. “But when you know that somebody deliberately set it, that they didn’t care about people or property, that’s what hurts. That’s hard to handle.”
Besides the two buildings that collapsed, five others were damaged by the Nov. 21 fire. It’s now a waiting game to see what happens to those buildings.
Joanne Campbell said the uplifting part of it all was how social agencies came together and fundraisers were conducted to help the displaced families, and officials from around the state showed their support.
“As a community, we couldn’t have had more people help out the day of the disaster and come together,” she said. “Everybody is trying to come together to see what we can do to make something good come out of something bad.”