Fire gutted a building in downtown Big Stone Gap on Friday night. Photo by Stephen Igo.
BIG STONE GAP — Fire destroyed an unoccupied structure at the main intersection of downtown Big Stone Gap late Friday.
The intersection remained blocked off Saturday as fires still smoldered within the rubble of what had been a two-story building that had housed businesses on the street level and apartments above.
Owned since the 1980s by Riggs Rentals, located at an opposing corner of East 5th Street and Wood Avenue East, the structure was a landmark of sorts, standing on its corner of the busiest intersection of town across from Miners Park and a block from the old federal courthouse.
Still surveying and supervising the scene on Saturday, Big Stone Gap Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Dan Gibson said the first call was received at around 10 p.m. Friday. The structure was totally gutted and exterior walls along two sides and the rear collapsed by Saturday morning.
“There was fire in the building and a lot of smoke in the upper floors” when firefighters arrived at the scene, he said.
“The building is old and we saw some signs early on that made us question the integrity of the structure, so we pulled our guys early in the process. So we knew at that point to focus on saving the adjoining structures.”
Riggs Rentals also owns the adjoining building, which housed the Big Stone Gap Weight Loss Clinic, said Riggs Rentals owner Chester Riggs. That building was heavily damaged because of collapsing debris from the structure that burned. The adjoining building was condemned, he said Saturday.
“All that wall fell through is what happened” to the adjoining building,” Riggs said. The front of the larger building that burned was unoccupied, but the street levels were used by Huddle House and the Comfort Inn for storage purposes.
His business was in the process of renovating the seven upper level apartments, Riggs said, including transforming a rear storage area into an eighth apartment. Gibson and Riggs said it was too early to tell how the fire started.
“I have no idea,” Riggs said. “It could have been a hobo. It could have been electrical. It could have been who knows?”
Gibson said the Big Stone Gap Police Department has initial authority to investigate the cause of the blaze but could request assistance from state fire investigators if desired. Riggs said his father, the late Steve Riggs, bought the building and the adjoining building in the 1980s and renovated them at that time.
“He was awful proud of it. It was in pretty rough shape when he bought it, and he fixed it up real nice at the time,” Riggs said.
Gibson said the main intersection would remain cordoned off until the area was made safe for motorists once more. The way the downtown sector is laid out in grid fashion, it’s a fairly simple matter for authorities to reroute traffic around the affected intersection.
The town awaited an excavation crew on Saturday to “come in to tear down the structure, and our job will be to keep it watered down while they do that to keep things cooled off so they can clear (rubble) off the streets,” Gibson said.
Gibson said the Valley VFD, Norton VFD and Duffield VFD assisted his department in fighting the fire. His guys, Gibson said, “were here all night.”