Shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday morning, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee sent out an alert to a students urging them to stay away from the commercial strip on campus for reason of a fire in the vicinity. The school did not cancel classes and there were no injuries reported as a result of the incident.
“We certainly are grateful that no one was injured during this incident, neither the owners and employees of the businesses nor the firefighters and first responders who rushed to the scene,” said WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher. “Our thoughts are with our friends and neighbors who own and work at these establishments.”
“I was in class during everything, but they had the roads closed off when I got out,” said WCU senior Matt Holland. “I had class in Coulter and we could smell the smoke from there.”
The roads that Holland mentioned are portions of Centennial and Central Drives. Traffic was blocked to allow firefighters to reach the blaze in order to extinguish it.
Fire departments from WCU and from surrounding counties, Jackson, Haywood, Macon, Swain and Buncombe, as well as the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee all responded to the fire. It was contained shortly after noon.
The commercial strip of property where the fire began is owned by WCU and leased to the businesses which includes Subway, Rolling Stone Burrito, Mad Batter Bakery and Cafe, and Bob's Mini-Mart. The Mini-Mart was the only property not affected by the fire, according to Bill Studenc, senior director of News Services at WCU.
"The firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to Bob's Mini-Mart," he said. "It is my understanding from the fire officials on the scene that the damage to Rolling Stone and the other two affected businesses is extensive."
As of Saturday the point of origin of the fire had yet to be determined, though there is an on-going investigation being conducted by local fire and law enforcement as well as the State Bureau of Investigation. Officials from the State Construction Office and the North Carolina Department of Insurance were expected on the scene Friday to begin a financial assessment of damages. University officials are unsure of how long it will be until they know the full amount of financial damages.
“I am pleased to see that the emergency management processes we have put into place seemed to work very well,” said Belcher. “The flow of communication to campus went very well. Our people responded appropriately, and I am thankful for the response by area firefighters, law enforcement agencies and first responders with whom we have mutual aid agreements.”
Many alumni and current students have passed their time at the affected establishments over the years, often popping in for a cup of coffee before class or a bite to eat before heading back to the dorm. Before the three affected businesses began serving students of WCU other businesses stood in their place. From the late 1940's until the mid-1980's the Townhouse restaurant stood on the grounds where it served as a popular gathering place for students faculty and staff.
“It's a tragedy for those business owners and it's employees,” said WCU alumni and Franklin native Chris Evans. “I know students and customers will miss them as well. Some of my best memories from college are of meeting up with my friends or studying at any one of those businesses. I sincerely hope that they can rebuild for the better.”
Updates will be made public as the investigation progresses.