Fire damages Basehor center; probe focuses on arson as cause
State officials continue their investigation into what they believe was an arson Saturday afternoon in Basehor.
The fire, which started about 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the storeroom of Keepsakes gift shop, cause an estimated $1 million in damage to the city's main retail area at 155th Street and State Avenue. Tonganoxie residents Dennis and Debbie Breuer own the center.
Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, who would not say whether they have any suspects, said the fire was set deliberately.
"The investigators from the ATF and the Kansas State Fire Marshal's (Office) are saying it was incendiary," said Larry Scott, a spokesman for the ATF.
Scott said a specially trained dog was brought to the scene of the fire during the initial stages of the investigation.
The dog reportedly smelled accelerants at the scene of the fire.
The gift shop where the blaze originated closes at noon on Saturdays, and the businesses in the center are not connected.
At least two business owners say they don't plan to reopen.
"I am probably through," said Mark Bichelmeyer, owner of Bichelmeyer Brothers grocery. "It would take quite a while to fix (the building) and you're talking about a lot of work."
And Jim Rumsey of Rumsey's Retail Liquor, said he had no hopes of reopening his store.
"It's over, there is no future," Rumsey said. "If it is really arson, it really upsets me. This country has just gone through one of the worst tragedies ever and for someone to be so self-centered in these times makes me very upset.
"I think that person should be sought out in the same manner as (Osama) bin Laden."
Both business owners spent the beginning of the week picking up what's left of their damaged businesses. Grocery store employees on Monday discarded damaged food products, under the watchful eye of an inspector from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Bichelmeyer said the grocery store had 15 part- and full-time employees who are now out of work.
Basehor resident Sheri Davis had worked at the grocery store part time for the past year and a half. For someone to purposely damage the store would be unbelievable, she said.
"I don't know who would want to do it," Davis said. "Look at all the lives these people have damaged. People that had businesses and now they have nothing."
A second grocery store employee, Carolyn Theodoroff, said she was upset by the suspected arson.
"I hope they find who did it," Theodoroff said. "Whoever did it took people's livelihood and their income. This store was like a family and we are just devastated."
Theodoroff, also a Basehor resident, had worked at the store for the past five years.
While the grocery and liquor stores suffered severe damage, two businesses on the northeast side of the building were completely destroyed.
Pat's Shampoo Hut and tanning salon and the Keepsakes gift store were decimated on Saturday.
Keepsakes owner Pat McClain said she hoped to reopen her store.
"I want to go back in there, but it is going to take a while to get it cleaned up," McClain said.
Fairmount Township Fire Department spokesman Gayln Gorup said the fire started in a storeroom of the Keepsakes store at 2:30 p.m.
More than 100 firefighters from seven fire departments responded to the fire, Gorup said. Gorup said firefighters were able to contain the fire to the northeast portion of the building by using fans. The fans kept the fire and smoke from spreading past Bichelmeyer's, he said.
"The ATF said it was absolutely unbelievable that we saved the structure because of the way the fire was rolling," Gorup said.
While the fire claimed several businesses, those businesses west of the grocery store received only smoke and water damage.
City officials said preparations were being made to get the shopping complex back in order for those businesses to return.
The future of the building itself remains unclear. The Breuers, on advice from their insurance companies, had no comment regarding the fire. The couple have owned the shopping center since June 2000.
Basehor city officials said they understood the couple had planned to renovate the building.
"The property owner had been making plans to remodel the entire building," said Mike Hooper, Basehor city codes administrator.