‘We’ll emerge like a phoenix’: Natick remains resilient day after fire tears through 8 businesses

The 8-alarm fire began in the basement of a Chinese restaurant, officials say.

Natick, MA - 7/22/2019 - Firefighters retrieve personal belongings from The Nancy Kelley Dance Studio at the scene of a 9-alarm fire in Natick, Mass. on Monday, July 22. (Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe) Topic: 23natick
Firefighters retrieve personal belongings Monday from The Nancy Kelley Dance Studio. –Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Jill Hourihan had just returned to Natick after a month of working long days on her parents’ Vermont farm. She turned her phone off and settled in for a night of heavy sleep.

Her husband tapped her shoulder around 6:30 a.m. Monday.

“Baby, you need to wake up now,” he said. “Your store is burning down.”

Her grooming business, Metro Pets, was ablaze along with the seven other businesses the store shared a building with.

Firefighters from 17 communities had been trying to tackle the flames since 1:30 a.m. to little avail. Acting chief Dan Dow said it was the largest fire he’s seen in his 24 years with the Natick Fire Department. The whole building needed to come down to put it out.

Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe
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Hourihan watched helplessly as the fire swelled to eight alarms and the building was demolished. She couldn’t do anything, but she didn’t feel she could be anywhere else.

She thought of the store’s colorful murals and the little paw print tiles she’d picked out for its floor.

“Losing things is irrelevant,” she said Tuesday. “Losing my place in the community — losing our home — that’s difficult.”

Though the building was mostly ruins by the time the flames were subdued, one of Hourihan’s store windows remained intact. Hand-painted cartoon versions of her groomers smiled from the wreckage.

The heap of remains that used to house a Chinese restaurant, a yarn and craft store, a dance studio, and more continued to smolder through Tuesday’s downpour. It’s not yet clear what started the fire, but officials say it began in the basement of King Wok.

Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

The green building sat in the heart of Natick, across the street from its common.

Just down the street from where the building stood is a power yoga studio called Spirit Bear, an Italian grocery, and an Orangetheory Fitness. The church across the way flies both gay and transgender pride flags.

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The structure that went up in flames Monday had been standing since 1900. It was fondly known as the “Broken Tooth,” according to business owner Rob Morris, because it used to be three stories tall before the top two were lopped off.

Morris was in the process of moving his vintage store, Robjets D’Art, to a new location down the street, so all of his merchandise was out of the building when it caught fire. This isn’t the first time he’s gotten lucky like this. He said last time his business moved storefronts, someone drove through the old location’s front window about a month later.

“I’m thinking someone up there must like me,” he said.

When he visited the rubble Tuesday, Greg Lamb saw a Bible laying on the ground near the sidewalk. He picked it up as a souvenir of the more than 30 years the First Church of Christ Scientist Natick operated a reading room from the building.

Speaking about the space Tuesday, Lamb, who serves as the church board’s chairman, struggled with his wording.

“It’s hard for me to say ‘was,’ I’m so used to saying ‘is,’” he said.

Firefighters take a break Monday. —Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Steve Levinsky, a member of the executive committee of Natick Center Associates, said though it was horrible, Monday restored his faith in humanity.

He said the community — businesses and individuals alike — rallied in support of the first responders and those who lost stores in the fire. Levinsky said he teared up as he walked by a house just down the street from the fire and saw someone had set out water and energy bars for the firefighters.

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Hourihan said she felt loved by the Natick community Monday.

“It’s sad to have a funeral, and that’s what it felt like,” she said. “But it’s a very rare blessing to attend your own funeral.”

Town Administrator Melissa Malone said the grit and spirit of the community will pull it through this misfortune. She and Levinsky both said the town is ready to support the business owners when they’re ready to move forward.

Many of the business owners who lost stores spent Tuesday on the phone with their insurance agencies, and everyone seems uncertain what will happen next but grateful for their community.

Walter Dunbar, who owns a store across the street from the building that caught fire, said the disaster is already bringing out the best in Natick.

“We’ll emerge like a phoenix from the ashes,” he said.

Suna Bayrakal of Natick, left, embraces her son, Kadrik Young, 11, on Monday. —Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe