Saturday marks one-year since a fire devastated four buildings in the commercial district of historic Harpers Ferry – two of those buildings were built before the Civil War. Eight shops and two apartments were lost, and by the time the fire was put out nearly eight hours after it began, it left behind almost $2 million in damages.
A year later, the town is on its way to recovery, but one couple still vividly remembers the scene that unfolded before them that morning.
Harpers Ferry is well-known for its significance during the American Civil War, and it’s one of West Virginia’s most popular tourist destinations. But on the morning of the July 23, 2015 fire, many residents worried that would all be lost…including Ron and Laura Clark.
The Clarks sell sporting goods at their shop in Harpers Ferry called The Outfitter. They also live in town – just up the street from where the fire began. This week, we sat on their porch, as they told me what happened on that early morning of July 23, 2015.
“It was a beautiful night,” Laura remembered, “I had the fan on and the door open, and it was trash night, and I heard this rustling noise, and since it was trash night, I thought it was the bear that was getting into the trash.”
But it wasn’t a bear, and the rustling didn’t go away.
“And I walked a half a block down, and I turned my head around the corner,” she said, “and there’s this staircase in the middle of the block, and in the center of the staircase, the blaze was going.”
Laura was the first person to make a 911 call that morning. After she woke up her husband Ron, she ran back down to the burning buildings to try and wake up residents who were asleep inside.
“I was calling 911 simultaneously as I was banging on the door,” she explained, “and it was horrifying. I mean, I could not get them awake; they were on the third level, the doorbell was broken, and it seemed like forever I was banging.”
Laura was finally able to get the attention of the two people inside the apartment. In the end, that building suffered serious damages.
Laura’s husband Ron was also up making calls by then and taking video of the fire on his phone.
“The fire started moving faster and jumped to another building, so I put my cell phone camera down and just started going down the street and banging on doors,” he said.
After about 20 or 30 minutes, fire and rescue crews showed up and contained the blaze. By late morning, the fire was finally put out.
It took Ron and Laura about two weeks to get over the trauma and even sleep well again.
But, in a matter of months, the town began to bounce back. Two shops displaced from the fire reopened in Harpers Ferry, while a few others reopened in nearby cities. Groups from both in and out of West Virginia, including West Virginia University, sent aid to help in the recovery efforts.
One year later, the reconstruction of the four buildings damaged in the fire is coming along smoothly. Harper’s Ferry Mayor Gregory Vaughn estimates the rehabilitation of most of the buildings will be complete by early winter.
Vaughn says the devastation hit shop owners’ the hardest, but he says since day one, they’ve been resilient.
“I think that even though it was a very difficult day for them, I think today they are so positive,” he noted, “I know one of the shop owners who was displaced, had their best year, probably, in decades with business.”
On Sunday, July 24, a special church service and luncheon will be held at Camp Hill-Wesley United Methodist Church in Harpers Ferry honoring the fire and rescue teams and other personnel who fought the July 2015 fire. The service will begin at 11:00 a.m.
One year later, the cause of the fire still hasn’t been determined.