Firefighters combed through charred rubble in downtown Lowell Friday trying to find the cause of a blaze that gutted two businesses the night before.
Investigators said the fire that was reported about 10 p.m. Thursday apparently started in the center to rear of Lowell Family Restaurant and spread to the adjoining Highlander Washerette & Dry Cleaners on North Main Street.
Damages were estimated at $500,000, according to Gaston County Deputy Fire Marshal Robert Michaleski. He said nobody was in any of the buildings at the time of the blaze, and there were no injuries. Close to 100 local residents watched from behind the police tape as firefighters battled the blaze.
Michaleski said it may be next week before investigators determine the cause.
Local leaders said the fire will have a significant impact on the Gaston County town of 2,800.
“It left a huge hole in downtown,” said City Council member Martha Burris. “Our hearts go out to the business owners. We hope they will be able to make it through this hard time.”
Firefighters from at least eight departments fought the blaze with nearly a dozen trucks, including three that sprayed water from above.
Lowell City Manager Ben Blackburn described the scene he witnessed Thursday night as “surreal.”
“There was a lot of smoke,” he said. “You could see flames inside the smoke. You just felt a deep sense of loss.”
Blackburn said the city not only lost two active downtown businesses, but a historic building with significant architectural features from the 1930s.
“It's a style that's reflected in many small towns in America,” he said. “This is an economic loss and a personal loss.”
The family-style restaurant in the 100 block of North Main Street, owned by Kathy Aldridge, was a mainstay of downtown.
Leigh Ann Carpenter, who works about a half block away in the Lowell City Hall, was a regular there. Her favorite dishes were the spaghetti and macaroni and cheese.
“The people you saw in there, nine out of 10 were repeat customers,” she said. “She (the owner) would always take time and ask everybody how they were doing. And she always told you to come back and see them again.”
Jim Campbell, owner of Campbell Jewelers across the street from the burned buildings, opened for business Friday even though North Main Street was still closed to traffic.
He was a customer at both the restaurant and washerette, owned by Ketan Patel.
“The folks there are super nice,” Campbell said. “This is terrible.”
A Lowell native, he said his family's business has operated in the town for 50 years. He has seen the central business district go through hard times before and then bounce back.
“I remember about 25 years ago when there were only two of us downtown,” he said. “Now, there are no empty buildings. Things are really doing good.”
The fire was devastating, but “we'll recover,” Campbell said. “There's no doubt in my mind. Things will get better.”
Joe DePriest: 704-868-7745