As the Christmas lights at the Appalachian Fairgrounds in Gray started twinkling at dusk Wednesday, dozens of emergency vehicle lights flashed too, but at the scene of a fire that destroyed at least four businesses, including the famed Sittin Bull Restaurant at 730 Gray Station Road.
“It was about 70 percent involved when we got here,” Gray Volunteer Fire Department safety officer Ed Green said. “We think it may have gotten into the attic space and from there it just took off.”
The call came in around 3:15 p.m., according to the 911 dispatch center. Green said there were some propane tanks in one of the buildings that exploded, but firefighters quickly contained that.
The fire apparently started inside the Sittin Bull, which was closed at the time, and quickly spread to the other businesses — Roots Salon, Black Sheep Market and K&S Sales — and left nothing but destruction in its wake.
Green said when the first units arrived, the flames were arcing over the road about 40 feet in the air.
Multiple fire trucks from eight Washington County volunteer departments — Gray, Fall Branch, Limestone, Nolichuckey, Jonesborough, Embreeville, Sulphur Springs and Watauga — as well as units from the Johnson City Fire Department and two trucks from a Sullivan County department responded. Dozens of firefighters were on scene.
Tanker trucks shuttled water from nearby fire hydrants for three dump tanks and that water was then pumped onto the blaze.
While there were people inside three of the businesses, Green said everyone got out safely and there were no injuries.
Jessica Ray, owner of Black Sheep Market, watched the scene in shock. Her store, a locally based discount grocery store, was open when she was alerted about the fire. She said within minutes the whole building was on fire.
“I was in the back … I heard something,” Ray said. ‘‘There’s a lot of wrecks out here and that’s what it sounded like. I looked outside and there was smoke. I went outside and there was a thick cloud of smoke. There were people running around because some girls were getting their hair done. … I panicked for a few seconds, then grabbed my car keys and a few things and by the time I got out it was up in flames. I went across the road and watched it burn.”
Ray said she fully intends to reopen her store in another location.
“This is my life. I’m going into my fifth year and the store’s been here seven years. I’ll try to start over somewhere else. I love the store and it helps a lot of people and we’ve got a good community base with it. I enjoy it. It helps people. It’s a very rewarding job. I want to do whatever I can to get it going again,” she said.
Another business owner in the small complex, Kevin Goyette, said he and his wife had worked five years to build up their business, K&S Sales, “and it’s gone in just a few minutes.”
He, too, looked on in disbelief as he watched his business being sprayed down with water.
Green said the cause of the fire is under investigation. He expected fire crews to be at the scene until at least midnight.