Parts of Wheatley Center Still Smoldering Thursday as Businesses Clean Up

Wheatley Center still smoldering Thursday morning. (W. I. Bostwick photo)

An area of Wheatley Center on St. Thomas that housed a beauty supply store, eye care center and bridal shop was still smoldering Thursday morning as unaffected businesses to the west of Wednesday’s blaze cleaned up and prepared to reopen as soon as the V.I. Fire Department gives the green light.

“We are still focused on putting the fire out completely at the beauty supply store,” said VIFD Director Daryl A. George Sr. Thursday morning. He said chemicals from products like nail polish and polish remover were stubbornly resisting the efforts. “It is going to take awhile.”

In the meantime, the Fire Department is allowing business owners in the adjacent stores like Doctor’s Choice Pharmacy and The Fruit Bowl to inspect their stock and take whatever measures necessary to prepare to reopen.

The blaze that started in the Beautiful Beginnings Bridal Gallery late afternoon Wednesday came with a series of surprises.

“Because the bridal shop is in the wedding business, “George said, “they had acetylene tanks.” At one point there was a big explosion, he said, which sent onlookers scattering. “It was like a bomb.”

An aerial photo captures the scene as firefighters battle the blaze that has burned through the roof. (Photo provided by V.I. Fire Services Director Daryl. A. George Sr.)
An aerial photo captures the scene Wednesday as firefighters battle the blaze that has burned through the roof. (Photo provided by V.I. Fire Services Director Daryl. A. George Sr.)

George said once the fire got into the drop ceilings firefighters knew all the stores closest to the bridal store would be lost. “We concentrated our efforts from the drug store, east.”

He said fire fighters went in and sprayed the eastern walls of the pharmacy to protect it from the raging fire in the bridal shop. It helped that the drug store is actually in a different building altogether – a reality that is not immediately obvious.

Wheatley Center was built in the 1970s. Though it is unknown what the building codes may have been at the time, the reality on Wednesday was there were no fire walls between the stores in the building where the fire started.

The Fruit Bowl opened not too long after the shopping center opened. “It will be 44 years in December,” said owner Marty Goldberg Thursday morning.

Goldberg was at the center until late Wednesday night and returned to good news Thursday morning. “Nothing was damaged in the store,” he said. “Not even smoke damage.”

All of the produce is fine thanks to that and the fact that the store’s generator kicked in and stayed on all night until the Water and Power Authority was able to restore power Thursday morning.

“I am grateful,” Goldberg said, adding that the Fire Service did a great job handling the catastrophe.

Director George said he had 24 on duty and 37 off duty firemen at the scene along with 10 pieces of equipment. That was not including the two foam sprayers sent from the V.I. Port Authority around 9 p.m.

“I have to thank Carlton Dowe and Chief Kean for their help,” he said referring to the VIPA director and VIPA Fire Chief Adrian Kean.

Flames engulf the bridal shop at the Wheatley Center. (Reader submitted photo)
The nozzle of the airport’s foam truck, left, sprays retardant on the flames Wednesday. (Reader submitted photo)

No one was injured or sickened. Firefighters were provided with protective gear Wednesday night, George said. A few also were given oxygen at the scene. The biggest concern was and still is the toxicity from the smoldering products in the beauty supply store.

George called upon the public to be vigilant. “That fire was going for a long time before we got called.” That statement is born out by Fruit Bowl manager David Goldberg’s remark Wednesday night that personnel at the store had no idea about the fire until the trucks arrived.

Marty Goldberg, who observed the entire operation Wednesday night, said one of firefighters’ biggest challenges was getting past the steel bars on the doors. “To their credit,” he said, “the firemen didn’t break the glass when they went into the pharmacy. ”

The investigation will take months, George said. “We are working with our federal partners,” including ATF. “They are in there this morning starting the investigation.”

He asked that the community help by quelling rumors and pointless speculation until the reports come back.

Meanwhile, Fire Marshall Leon Baptiste was on the scene Thursday morning inspecting businesses to determine if it is safe to open to the public.

The Health Department will also need to give approval to reopen the stores, George said.

Both George and Goldberg said they were optimistic that will happen by Friday.

“As soon as I get the word,” George said, “I will give the go ahead.”

Editor’s note: The Source is on top of the situation and will post a notice as soon as the businesses, which also include a bakery and clothing store, are given the okay to reopen.