Residents in the town of Ovid finally have an answer to what caused the massive fire on Main Street the night of March 18: an 11-year-old boy with a lighter.
According to Seneca County Sheriff’s investigators, the boy was playing with the lighter behind the New Dragon Chinese Restaurant when he accidentally set trash on fire. Propane tanks nearby quickly turned it into a severe blaze, causing severe damage to the restaurant and three surrounding buildings that have all since been condemned. Fortunately no injuries were reported.
At least ten residents were displaced when seven apartments above the businesses were also gutted. A firewall between the Chinese restaurant and thrift shop in the building next to it was somewhat spared. The shop’s insurance engineer is inspecting the property today to assess whether it can be salvaged.
Sixteen-year-old Cheli Austin lives in the apartment just behind Italian Kitchen, one of the affected businesses. She was returning home from shopping that night when she saw the blaze.
“It was just flames everywhere,” she said. “It started around five at night and went until four in the morning.”
Austin visits both restaurants frequently and said she knows the owners personally.
“They’re [doing] good,” she said. The owners of the Chinese restaurant are staying in Waterloo with assistance from the Red Cross until they can relocate. Austin describes the food they made with one word: “Amazing. I miss it already. I ordered the sesame chicken dish a lot.”
The unnamed 11-year-old boy has been charged as a juvenile with arson in the fourth degree, given he recklessly started a fire, but did not set the fire intentionally. The sheriff’s office stated the case would be referred to family court. If found guilty, the boy could be sent to a juvenile detention facility, placed on probation, and/or given counseling or treatment.
Unprecedented destruction for the small town
Several long-time residents said they have never seen any structural devastation come anywhere close to this month’s fire damage since they have lived in Ovid.
All the affected buildings are insured; both the Chinese restaurant and thrift shop have signs posted in their windows stating they plan to re-open after recovery.
Paul Walborn, who owns the barbershop just across the street, still worries about the length of time it will take to demolish and rebuild the businesses.
“I hope it doesn’t take a long time,” he said. “It’s an eyesore. A lady just stopped right in the middle of the traffic, and [her car] almost got hit in the rear end…They stop and they look. That’s not good.”
United recovery in the community
A relief fund was set up at the local Five Star Bank, and multiple events have been planned to help the displaced fire victims. On March 27, the Ovid Federated Church dedicated this month’s community dinner, though it is technically free, to collect donations for the fund.
“We have helped some people with clothing already,” Pastor Diane Walker said. “Once they get into a permanent place of residence, we’ll help them with household goods. We’re working on sorting things as the come in and make them available.”
Right now, she said, cash donations will help the most until those specific needs are identified.
The Eagle Hotel in Lodi is hosting a benefit concert, “Rebuild With Love” on March 30. Adults are being asked to donate $5 (children 13 and under free) for admission to the event, which will include music, food and an auction.
A spaghetti dinner is scheduled for April 6 at Riley’s Place in Willard from 2 to 6 p.m.