PROPHETSTOWN – Eight buildings in the 300 block of Washington Street in historic downtown Prophetstown, some with apartments on the upper floors, were destroyed in a fire that broke out about 2:30 a.m. Monday.
The fire began in Cindy Jean’s Restaurant, 324 Washington St., and spread to businesses on each side, including Kim’s Monogram, Twisted Scissors, D’s Variety and the Prophetstown Historical Society. In all, officials said, eight buildings were lost to the fire and two others had smoke damage.
No injuries were reported.
By 4:50 a.m., the Prophetstown water tower had only 10 feet of water left, Mayor Steve Swanson. said At the pace the fire crews were using it, the water would have lasted about 45 minutes. The fire was under control by 7 a.m.
Other area fire departments started bringing in water on tankers, and firefighters were pumping water from the Rock River to take to the scene.
“All I know is I called for more help, more help, more help,” Prophetstown Fire Chief Keith Crady said. “Paw Paw is one of the farthest I heard came. It got to the point where I needed tankers, and I just called the county and I said, ‘Give me 10 tankers.’ I don’t know where they came from.”
Crady said both the Prophetstown and Lyndon water towers were drained, and Prophetstown’s second well also was used.
A boil order was declared for the rest of the town until further notice.
Among an estimated two dozen departments on the scene were firefighters from Sterling, Rock Falls, Annawan, Erie and Walnut.
Some of the buildings were built in the early 1900s, Crady said, adding that the fire was able to spread quickly across the roofs before there were fire trucks with aerial hoses on scene.
“Luckily [we have] mutual aid agreements,” Crady said. “And we work with them. We go up to help them when they need help; they come help us. And that’s the only way we can do this job anymore.”
After all residents were safely out of the buildings, Crady said, his focus turned to trying to save the Historical Society.
“I wanted to save that thing,” he said. “There’s stuff that’s 102 years old that’s gone now. If you can’t stop it, you can’t stop it. I was trying, doing the best I could to get to it, but that’s only two doors down from Cindy Jean’s, so it’s tough to do.”
The State Fire Marshal was at the scene Monday and will release a report after the cause of the fire has been determined. Crady said he didn’t have a specific reason to suspect arson, but it’s good to start with that thought so nothing is overlooked.
Swanson said he isn’t sure of the next step to take once the buildings are razed for safety reasons, a process that started Monday afternoon.
Swanson has been mayor for 5 years and lives about three blocks from where the fire was.
“I’ve never had to deal with something like this, so I’m not quite sure,” he said. “It’s just devastating for this small town. Prophetstown has a great Main Street program. We’ve had several awards from the state of Illinois honoring our main street, our main street community, and this just really puts a kink in that.”
Most businesses were of the “mom and pop” variety, and it’s “unlikely” they will be able to rebuild as they were before, he said.
No injuries were reported, Crady said, and some of the residents already had made it out to the street by the time firefighters arrived.
“There were three people, I think, that they woke up and got out of their apartments. ... That was the first and foremost [issue],” Crady said. “The buildings can burn, but you got to get the people out before you do anything.”
Among those who were out of their homes when the fire department arrived was Cindy Jean Eriks, owner of Cindy Jean’s. She lives above the restaurant, which celebrated its 5-year anniversary June 17.
If Eriks had awakened 5 minutes later, she said, she doesn’t think she would have made it out alive.
“I woke up and I went into the kitchen to get my cellphone, because I had to plug it in the kitchen to charge it,” she said from in front of the cooling center set up at Rock Valley Physical Therapy, across the street from the fire.
“When I walked into my kitchen, which is toward the back of the building, [through] the windows, you could see fire and smoke, and I could smell smoke.”
Eriks said she grabbed her phone and made her way out the front of the building, calling 911 as she ran down the stairs. There already were people out on Washington Street, she said, who had heard an explosion and seen the fire.
Several residents said they heard explosions, which they said sounded like transformers exploding.
“I called 911 at 2:35 a.m.,” Eriks said. “And it was just one building after another.”
Most damage was done to the backs of the buildings. Eriks’ car, which was parked behind the restaurant, was destroyed.
Three years ago, another fire hit Cindy’s Jean’s, Eriks said, causing about $100,000 in damage between the restaurant and the upstairs apartment.
If she can, she said, she plans to reopen.
“I’m going to see if the insurance company will give me enough money for it,” Eriks said. “I’m a die-hard. I love making people happy with food.”
As of about 10 a.m. Monday, the American Red Cross had helped five residents with food, clothing or lodging, but expected more before the day was over. Red Cross provides $130 per resident for clothes and shoes, $50 for food, and up to 3 days of lodging. Some of the displaced residents will stay at a Rock Falls hotel.
By midday Monday, there were calls for Sterling firefighters to relieve firefighters still on scene in Prophetstown.
A community prayer service will begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Eclipse Square.
In the mid 1960s, Swanson said, a December fire destroyed several buildings, including a movie theater. During that fire, crews also pumped water from the Rock River, the mayor said.