As he surveyed aisles of damaged merchandise at the downtown Modesto store he opened with his brother, Jesus, nearly two years ago, Jorge Tovar said through a translator that a Spanish-language song, “Amarga Navidad,” came to his mind.
“It means ‘Bitter Christmas,’ and this is how he feels right now,” said Maggie Mejia, the former Latino Community Roundtable president who does bookkeeping for the Mercado y Dulceria Mexico market and warehouse in the Tillie Lewis Business Park. “They’re in shock – it’s devastating.”
The business at at Ninth and D streets, which opened in January 2016, sustained more than $300,000 in damage to the building and its contents in a fire early Wednesday, according to the Modesto Fire Department.
The store was closed indefinitely Wednesday morning, business associate Marco Moreno said, and the Tovars are unable to deliver to smaller stores they supply. Piñatas compose the bulk of what’s delivered, Mejia said, and the insurance company is likely to call the entire piñata inventory a loss.
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Shortly after 1 a.m., an engine was dispatched to a fire alarm sounding at the market. A Modesto police officer reported smoke and flames showing, and the call quickly was upgraded to a commercial working structure fire. The response grew by four engines, a truck, a rescue unit and two battalion chiefs.
Firefighters forced entry and found the sprinkler system was holding the fire in check in the center of the large grocery store, said Tim Tietjen, support and EMS division chief. Searches found no one in the business.
Conditions including heavy smoke created challenges for the crews because visibility was close to zero and the large shelves and aisles made it difficult to get to the heart of the fire, Tietjen said. Crews were able to “put positive pressure ventilation in place,” he said, making it possible to extinguish the fire.
The Tovars had just stocked up on piñatas for the Christmas season and had about 5,000 in stock, Mejia said.
And a piñata in a fire has about as much chance as a snowball in hell. Because the market’s sprinkler system worked well, the hanging paper candy containers were largely saved from flames only to become water damaged or left reeking of the smoke that filled the building.
Churches throughout the area had been set to pick up from Mercado y Dulceria Mexico special seven-pointed Christmas star piñatas. “Now, all the churches that are depending on them for the posada piñatas and the candy? Can’t do it,” Mejia said “And this coming Saturday, Toys for Tots was to be here with Modesto Impalas car club for a toy drive. I just had to call her to tell her they can’t do it here – it won’t be open.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation, said Dave Hutchinson, manager of the Stanislaus Regional Fire Investigation Unit. Investigators were at the business Wednesday, conducting interviews, going over surveillance video and examining other evidence.