Richard Hyatt

HYATT: More than just a mill burned

Brent Buck's pickup wasn't going anywhere and neither was he. His eyes gave away how tired he was, understandable since he had been up all night watching a fire destroy the heart of a building built with memories as well as bricks.

“All I can do is sit and watch,” Buck said.

Bibb Mill was his dream. When he bought it nine years ago, he saw more than a building. Thursday he saw a naked shell that looked back at him with smoke-filled eyes.

Fire ravaged a cotton mill and a Columbus landmark. In a matter of hours scorching flames attacked the soul of a fading way of life and the people who lived it.

I sat in on the final meeting of the Bibb City Commission — the meeting in which the city voted to give up its charter. I also stood outside The Bibb as former mill workers came to say goodbye on the plant's final day of business.

Now I'm a resident — looking back on 12 hours that don't seem real.

It began soon after midnight with explosions that roused us out of bed. Out the window, the sky was between red and orange. It was a fire so large that it could only be the mill.

Camera in hand, I walked up First Avenue to photograph the startling scene. By then emergency vehicles were arriving in swarms.

The sky rained sparks and cinders. Wind blew them into our yard and on to our roof. No one told us to, but we collected keepsakes and items we knew we couldn't replace and packed our car for a getaway.

We're not particularly young but our neighbor is old and in the bedlam she was confused. She stood outside in her pajamas complaining her water pressure poor.

We never evacuated, but firefighters did hose down our roof. Even on First Avenue closest to the flames, not a house was damaged.

When daylight came, our yard was littered with chunks of wood that had been transformed into debris and piles of soot that could have been swept out of a fireplace.

Walking down 38th Street toward the river, the landscape had changed. Somehow, the mill's façade survived. So did the clock that always says it's 37 minutes after two.

I remembered my friend Jeanette McClung. This neighborhood was her home and on the day the mill closed she was among the nostalgic crowd that gathered. This was a sight she might want to see but I prayed she wouldn't.

For the people of the old Bibb City, the mill was the hub. Life revolved around it. Now that building is only a shell.

Brent Buck dreamed of breathing new life into the 108-year-old building. Now all he can do is sit is helplessly watch as firefighters drown what's left of the impressive brick walls.

A building burned in the wee hours of Thursday and when it did, people's memories and dreams went up in smoke.

Richard Hyatt is also found at www.richardhyattcolumbus.com

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