With firefighters still on scene and their staff by their side, Sue and Paul Zacharias were already getting to the many pressing tasks at hand after a fire gutted the couple’s family business, United Concrete and Gravel Ltd., Monday morning.
“I put my faith in God,” Sue said when asked how she was holding up Monday afternoon. “Our employees are safe and that is the only thing that really matters. Wood and steel and tools can be replaced.”
Also a city councillor, Sue said the city showed it is a “big-hearted town” in the hours during and following the fire.
“We’re just so grateful to the fire department and all the other people who helped. We have been overwhelmed with so much kindness and have received so many offers of support.”
Monday morning began like any other for the business, with Paul, Sue and three other staff members in the office early to gear up for the busy construction season ahead.
Paul said he and employee Larry Austin stood just outside the machine shop and discussed their plans for the day, both unaware of the fire that was growing in the nearby lathe room.
“We were standing right there and we didn’t hear or smell anything,” Paul said.
Austin added he thought the fire grew too fast to have only started in the lathe room where it was first spotted, speculating it may have been gathering momentum in the walls or attic.
“I’ve been around fires before, but this one went fast – for a metal building, it went so fast,” said Austin, who burned his hand on a bay door chain trying to get water on the fire.
Sue said she was working in her office when she heard a commotion and smelled smoke.
“It all happened so fast, so quickly,” said Sue, who grabbed her briefcase and ran outside to move her and her husband’s vehicles away from the building.
“I ran back in to see what else I could get but the flames were already coming into the office so I just ran back out again.”
Williams Lake Fire Chief Des Webster, who was at home having a coffee on his day off Monday, got the fire call at 8:05 a.m. and stepped out onto his deck to see a large plume of black smoke rising from the business, located on Hodgson Road just a block up from the fire hall.
Webster said he and 24 fire fighters worked at the scene for about six hours, putting out the aggressive blaze that was fuelled by oils, gas and lubricants in the machine shop and an old wood-framed building.
“It was a defensive fire for us. No one went in because it was too dangerous,” said Webster, who called in an excavator to help once crews knocked down the bulk of the blaze.
“We had to pull the building apart to get at the rubble that was burning beneath. As you can see the building is completely destroyed.”
The building consisted of an eight-bay shop, mixing hoppers and the front office.
Sue was quick to respond when asked if the couple would rebuild.
“Oh yes of course,” she said.
“My main concern right now is that my employees are OK physically and emotionally and what the next steps are going to be. We don’t want them to worry about the future,” she said, adding the company’s management team would be meeting Monday night to work on finding a way to keep operating for its customers and 15-18 employees in Williams Lake.
Part of that response will see the business’s other operations in Quesnel and 100 Mile step in to help, including bringing a portable batch plant down from Quesnel.
Sue said the company can still receive calls 250-392-3443.
Employee M.J. Vigeant, who was also on a day off when the business caught fire, was on scene Monday with all the other employees, doing whatever she could to help. In her case that involved taking business calls on her cell, using her vehicle as a portable office and getting pats on her back from Sue.
“That’s one thing about United Concrete,” Vigeant said. “We’re all like family.”