Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Gloria Towne could do nothing but watch as the second-shift firefighters sifted through the charred rubble of her livelihood. The camp store/restaurant she and her husband, Gerry, had taken over this spring burned to the ground yesterday while they slept.
“I woke up this morning at 5:30 and turned on my phone – I had tons of messages, but the first one I saw was a text message. It said, 'OMG I'm so sorry.' I had no idea what it meant,” said Gloria Towne, co-owner of Avo's Country Store, the social hub of Hidden Valley R.V. and Golf Park.
She soon found out that fire erupted sometime after closing up for the night at 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., when a the sound of a small explosion woke a resident.
Fire crews were called to the remote site a mile off East Derry Road, arriving to find the 30-year-old building being swallowed by a raging fire. Derry Fire Battalion Chief David Hoffman said fire crews immediately focused on containing the blaze, which was threatening some propane tanks on one side, and a row of evergreens on the other. The store sits directly across a narrow path from some camper trailers and the park office.
Towne said her heart raced as she woke her husband and told him “something terrible has happened,” and then the two hurried to the scene from their home in Hooksett.
“The ride was a blur. We couldn't get here fast enough. By the time we got here, it was over. The whole place was burned to the ground,” said Towne. She said her husband was handling the loss a little better than she was.
“He feels like everything is replaceable. I feel so bad, especially that the building is gone. Ed, the park owner, built that with his own two hands,” said Towne, referring to Ed Simonsen, who owned the building that housed the camp store and restaurant.
Yesterday Simonsen was zipping around the park grounds in a golf cart, back and forth between fire officials, golfers and seasonal campers.
“You know, it's just one of those things. I'm a Christian, and I have to figure maybe it happened for the best – no one was hurt, and we'll build it back up again,” said Simonsen. He was already focused on keeping campers comfortable – because the campground's water system is contained underneath the store, the park was left with no water.
|Manchester Fire Investigators use a fire dog to search the scene.|
Towne said she was moved to tears when she heard that the fire was reported by a little girl who lives with her grandmother in the camper directly across from the store.
“I heard that she heard a 'pop' that woke her up, and she woke her grandmother. She lost her own home to a fire in December, and has been living with her grandmother since. Imagine what that must have been like for her,” said Towne.
The store was a real Mom and Pop operation, said Towne. The couple took on the store and restaurant after former owner Nancy Marotta had to let the place go after last season. Her husband, Louis, died suddenly of a heart attack last Aug. 15. Towne said renaming the store Avo's Country Store was a nod to her proud station in life, and devotion to her family.
“Avo means grandmother in Portuguese,” said Towne, excusing herself to field a question from her pint-sized granddaughter. “My daughter, son and future daughter-in-law came right away,” said Towne, nodding toward a cluster of people sipping coffee at a picnic table. “My son is getting married Saturday. Can you believe this?”
Towne's husband kept vigil next to the yellow crime tape throughout the morning, making and receiving phone calls and talking with fire investigators. Manchester Fire Investigator Mitch Cady was called in to check out the scene with Wynett, a 3-year-old golden Labrador retriever, trained to sniff out lighter fluid and gasoline.
“She sits when she finds something,” said Cady, who added that the investigation would take several days. As of yesterday, fire officials said there was no immediate evidence that the fire was suspicious.
Towne said she watched investigators poking through the rubble, spending a lot of time in what used to be the game room, looking at an electrical box. She felt otherwise helpless, and spent her morning pacing a little, receiving hugs, handmade cards and sympathies from her customers, many of whom have been coming to the seasonal campground for decades, including Carl Crowley, whose been vacationing at Hidden Valley for 29 years.
“I knew something was up when I woke to no water this morning. I made my way up here, and then I saw it,” said Crowley, after pulling up to the parking lot next to the store on a golf cart, the official mode of transportation for residents. “This store has been a big part of the camping experience over the years,” Crowley said.
Another Carol – Carol Roberts – pulled up on her cart, shaking her head. “I saw Gerry this morning, and he said, 'Sorry, no bagel and cream cheese for you this morning,' I can't believe this,” said Roberts.
Carol No. 3 – Carol Dow – pulled up from the opposite direction on her cart, accompanied by her miniature dachshund sniffing the air, still heavy with the scent of a perpetual campfire. “I'd like to take a picture, but I don't have the heart,” said Dow.
“I'm sure they're rebuild it, but it will never be the same,” said Crowley.
Prior to buying the camp store, the Towne's owned Millyard Grill on Dow Street in Manchester. They spent four months rebuilding the kitchen, upgrading the game room and perfecting a menu that went far beyond the typical campground fare, opening officially in March to a warm welcome from the regulars.
“The people here are like family – they've already taken up a collection for us, to help us rebuild,” said Towne. “We have insurance. But you don't know what it means to us, this outpouring. Kids have been bringing me construction-paper cards all morning. It's made this so much easier.”