EASTHAMPTON — Investigators have found no evidence that the fire that devastated Ed’s Auto Body & Repair Inc. earlier this month was intentionally set or the result of arson, according to Jake Wark, spokesman for the state fire marshal’s office.
The fire at the Mechanic Street auto body shop, which has been in business at that site for more than 44 years, started on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 11.
“They (investigators) identified some potential factors, all of which were accidental, but the scope of the damage made it impossible to determine exactly how it began,” Wark said in a statement.
The shop’s owners, Ed and Joann Nalewanski, said they knew in their hearts that it wasn’t anything that they had done that could have caused the fire. For several years, Ed Nalewanski had made a point to stop welding at the site by 3:30 p.m. during business hours in case of a rogue spark and there were never any issues.
Joann Nalewanski said she was told by the insurance company that the fire started in the rafters above the office where there are several electrical wires and spread to the left and right of the building swiftly.
“When the Fire Department arrived, the building was already engulfed in flames, but it wasn’t their fault. They were there within minutes, but the smoke detectors didn’t pick up the smoke until it had spread down to the other parts of the building,” she said. “We had installed a $20,000 fire alarm system last year, which is automatically hooked up to the Fire Department. Had the fire started below, the fire department would have been alerted sooner.”
In the meantime, the charred structure remains in place as the Nalewanskis wait for further review from their insurance company.
“It’s not safe to go into the building yet. Over the weekend, another part of the roof collapsed,” said Joann Nalewanski. “The hold up right now is the insurance company. We’re waiting for them to see it like it is. They were supposed to be here on Monday, but they never came.”
The couple offered gratitude for the property’s landlord, Charles Patterson, who has been working with them as they hope to rebuild. Joann Nalewanski said that while they’re waiting for the existing structure to be demolished, Patterson has been discussing clearing out the property to the left of the current structure to help facilitate the building of a new structure.
“We’ve been looking at Morton steel buildings because they could go up quicker,” she said. “We’re all working together to get the business back up and running.”
In the days following the fire, members of the community have reached out offering cards, letters, gift baskets and desserts. One customer even suggested starting a GoFundMe online fundraiser to support the business, but the couple respectfully declined and instead suggested donating a toy to the Easthampton Community Center.
After learning that the city’s police and fire departments were hosting a toy drive, Joann and Ed Nalewanski went shopping for a few toys to donate to their drive as well.
“It’s Christmastime and times are so tough out there. For our generation, we can get through this. We have insurance. But young families, with utilities and rent, we wanted to do something for the community,” she said.
One of the few items the couple was able to salvage from the blaze was a wreath with a scorched bow, which Joann Nalewanski thanked Fire Chief Christopher Norris for finding.
In addition to the building itself, the shop had seven vehicles inside that were in various states of repair and restoration, including a one-of-a-kind Dodge Challenger Hellcat. Unfortunately, all seven have been deemed total losses, according to Joann Nalewanski.
“The owner of the Hellcat told us that he would be our first customer once we reopen if it was salvageable. When we had to break the news to him, he was so understanding. In fact, every single one of our customers have been wonderful and so understanding,” she said.
Prior to the fire, Ed’s Auto Body & Repair was booked almost solid until March. While many customers with vehicles in need of cosmetic repairs said they’ll wait for the shop to reopen, the Nalewanskis have made a number of referrals to other area shops for those customers with more urgent vehicle concerns.
“We have three generations of customers and they’re all so loyal. I can’t say enough about them, the fire department, our neighbors … the community has just been terrific,” said Joann Nalewanski.
For now, the biggest challenge for Joann Nalewanski continues to be trying to comfort her husband, whom she called her “soulmate.” The couple has been together for 41 years and married for 39.
“Ed was always the first one in and the last one out. Besides me, that was his life,” she said. “To have this happen to him, it’s disheartening to me. I just can’t comfort him enough. He’s broken and upset.”
Ed Nawleski started his business on May 1, 1978 in a single bay on Mechanic Street. Over the years, his wife says he’s continued to pitch in wherever the business needed it, whether it was stepping in for a sick employee wet sanding and buffing a vehicle for a few weeks or staying open to finish a job and offering customers a meal.
Right now, one of his big concerns is the shop’s 10 employees and reopening.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “The crew has been with me for so long, they wanna come back and want to reopen. Hopefully it will all fall into place.”
Emily Thurlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.