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Editor’s note April 8: This story has corrected the name of fire victim Raul Espinosa Ibarra.
By Connie Leinbach
A fire gutted Raul Espinosa Ibarra’s home behind the Variety Store Thursday afternoon before members of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department contained it.
Fire Chief Albert O’Neal said no one was injured.
“It was full-blown around 1:30, said Tommy Hutcherson, Variety Store proprietor, Ibarra’s employer and owner of the building. “There was so much white smoke. You couldn’t see out the back. It was terrible.”
“Fire was coming out of the windows like crazy,” said Teresa Adams, who was working at Ocracoke Garden Center, behind the Variety Store and adjacent to Ibarra’s home.
Ibarra, a familiar and friendly face at the store, was working inside the store when the fire was discovered.
Sandy Yeatts, the company’s training officer and commander at the scene, said 21 of the 29 volunteer members got water on the house from the outside first, then went in through the front door.
“This was firefighter training 101 and 102,” he said.
About 30 civilians showed up to help, too, O’Neal said.
The call came in at 1:42, O’Neal said, and the members had the flames knocked down in about 20 minutes.
Firefighters were on the scene for two more hours before all the hot spots were identified and doused, he said. The Dare County fire marshal is expected to arrive on the island tomorrow to determine the cause. Sporadic ferry service in the afternoon due to high winds prevented his arrival today, O’Neal said.
Those winds of 30 to 35 mph concerned the fire fighters, too, said Ernie Doshier, assistant chief, who with Mike Damba and Yeatts, entered the burning building first. Amazingly, the fire did not spread to another home about 10 feet away from Espinoza’s.
Damba, who works as a Hyde County paramedic, said that last night and this morning’s rains aided the crew the ground was still wet.
“It could’ve been a disaster,” Hutcherson said. “It was crazy how it was isolated right there. The fire department did a fantastic job.”
He said the building will be demolished.
“For the wind as high as it was and no other buildings got caught, it was right impressive,” O’Neal said after the event while the volunteers were putting the hoses back on the trucks.
Julia Hutcherson, owner of the Variety Store and Tommy’s mother, said the parking lot and store were full of smoke. She closed the store during the emergency.
“The smoke in the store was so strong,” she said, “and the road was blocked off.”
Hyde County Sheriff’s deputies blocked off the road for the fire hose hookup on West End Road, across Irvin Garrish Highway, Yeatts said.
Yeatts, who is the training officer, said the company had recently finished hose training.
“Everybody worked in sequence, together and as a crew,” he said today’s effort.
One of the newer fighters, Theresa “Tree” Ray, a commercial fisherman who is among nine women on the crew, said she had been to the Fish House and was heading back toward the Variety Store when she saw the smoke and went directly to the fire house and got into her gear.
“It was intense,” she said about her first fire emergency. “At first I lost all thought processes, but then I focused,” she said afterwards while helping to pack the hoses back into the fire trucks. “Then I heard what people needed.”
On the scene, she helped spot one of the hose leaders, Gustavo Sanchez, and then moved around to other jobs as needed.
Chrisi Gaskill and Jessica Caldwell arrived at the fire station as soon as they could to help clean up.
Of the 29 volunteer fire fighters, two are junior members (under 18), said Dick Jacoby, president of the Ocracoke Fire Protection Association, which is the business and fundraising arm of the company.
Later in the evening, during its bi-weekly Thursday night meeting, volunteers were back in the hall organizing their equipment, including refilling compressed air tanks used by the volunteers who entered the burning building.
Doshier said the company gets a lot of used equipment from a few other fire companies out of state.
“We’re pretty well equipped here,” he said. “We have to be. We don’t have any back-up.”
As for Ibarra, Tommy immediately set him up in a fully-furnished rental cottage that he owns.
“Raul is just heartbroken,” Julia said, taking a break from her office work. “He lost everything.”
But community members immediately came to his aid.
Lulu Perez, leaving the Variety Store, said she was making him dinner.
“He’s a musician, and Marcy Brenner brought him a guitar,” Julia said.
Tommy said people have been calling him all afternoon and evening about how they can help Espinosa.
“He needs everything,” Tommy said, noting that Ibarra has support from his brothers, one of whom is on the island. “He’s a great guy and a good employee.”
A “Raul Fund” donation bucket was set up on one of the cashier counters.
“Everyone and all the visitors just love Raul,” Julia said. “He’s so special.”