PUTNEY — The hashtag says it all: #RodsStrong.
The Winchester family of Rod’s Towing and Repairs vowed Monday to rebuild their business after it was gutted by a fire that state police investigators say was arson.
Vermont State Police said the fire appeared to have started in the company’s collection of used truck and tractor tires in the rear of the business, which is located on Main Street (Route 5), across from the Putney Food Co-op and close to Exit 4 of Interstate 91. State police said it appeared the fire started with “direct human involvement.”
Damages are in excess of $250,000, state police said.
The business, known around town as Rod’s Mobil, was built in 1967 by Rod Winchester and his father Raymond. It has been family owned and operated since then, said Lyndsey Ravenna, daughter of Greg Winchester, the current operator and son of Rod Winchester.
Ravenna, acting as family spokeswoman at the scene Monday morning, said the family was waiting for its insurance adjuster, who is slated to come on Wednesday. She said there was a delay because of the holiday weekend.
“We have a video of when the fire started,” she said, putting it at 1:24 a.m. “It just frickin’ exploded,” she said.
Ravenna, who worked at the service desk at the station along with her sister Larissa Rose, said the community reaction and support were overwhelming and wonderful.
“It’s amazing,” she said, noting Putney businesses and residents were generous and helpful.
“The Putney Diner fed us all breakfast this morning,” she said.
She said her parents, Greg and Julie Winchester, were working hard to make sure all of the 13 employees are paid as the family makes plans to rebuild. Rod Winchester currently lives at the family home on Ames Hill Road in West Brattleboro.
Ravenna said that while the front portion of the station appears heavily damaged but intact, the building will have to be razed and a new station built.
“Fixing cars is 100 percent what keeps us running,” she said.
She said the business does have insurance, including business interruption insurance, and that there were multiple surveillance cameras around the building. Those cameras have been turned over to fire investigators, she said.
She and other members of the family made appeals to the public to come forward with any information they might have about the fire, which broke out early Saturday morning shortly after 1 a.m. The family thinks that someone threw gasoline on the stack of tires, and the fire mushroomed after that.
The Putney Fire Department, which is a short distance away, was on the scene in minutes, she said. She praised the work of Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard and his firefighters, and said the family is working with Goddard on the investigation.
Goddard said Monday that his report on the fire will come out later in the week, possibly on Tuesday. The Vermont State Police have already labeled the fire as arson.
It is the second suspicious fire in Putney in a week: a fire last Saturday afternoon on Shag Bark Hill destroyed a vacant mobile home owned by a woman from Connecticut.
Ravenna said Saturday’s fire was the second attempt to burn Rod’s Mobil; she said the first incident occurred around the time of the first fire at the Putney General Store, in the spring of 2008.
That time someone stuffed rags into a flower box on the front of Rod’s building and set it on fire. That fire damaged the front right corner of the building, but was relatively minor, she said.
She said the family and its employees couldn’t start cleaning up or salvaging things until the insurance company gives the clearance. She said they did board up the front of the station, to keep people from entering.
“We can’t be going inside,” she said.
She said the family is already talking to Dompier Electric to get electricity to the fuel pumps so the station can start selling fuel again. She said the towing business is still in operation, as two of the three wreckers survived the fire.
She said AAA will continue handling calls for wrecker service for Rod’s.
She said the wrecker that had a heavy duty winch and was used during the winter burned in the fire since it was kept inside. Several customers’ cars which were in the work bays also burned over the weekend.
She said a long row of vehicles to be repaired, which were not damaged in the fire, would be returned to their owners, and that the family had received a generous offer of land for storage of those vehicles.
Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Windham 4, said the community felt terrible for the losses endured by Greg and Julie Winchester, who live in Putney. “They are good people,” he said.
“The people of Putney feel this when one of our neighbors experiences such a shocking loss. We are all saddened and angered by the destruction of one of our landmark businesses, Rod’s Auto Center, by what appears to be an intentionally set fire.
“Please know that Vermont State Police and the Windham County Sherriff are coordinating their efforts and doing everything they can to keep Putney safe — and apprehend those who did this. And, as local legislators we are ready to help bring any state resources available to help the situation,” Mrowicki said.
“The scene at Rod’s is all too similar to the two fires at the Putney General Store in our recent past, that all of us were deeply touched by. Just like those disasters, we’re confident Rod’s will be rebuilt and the community will step up with whatever support is needed,” he said.