SOUTHINGTON — Tops Marketplace owner John Salerno looked over a fence at the charred remains of the grocery store Monday.
”I’m devastated,” he said.
As he spoke, an agent from Nationwide Insurance told Salerno the building and its contents were a total loss.
“I never expected this to happen.” Salerno said. “A customer called us and said something is burning on the side of the building.”
Business partner Betsy Tooker stood next to Salerno Monday afternoon as excavators cleared concrete and metal fixtures to allow state and local authorities to investigate the cause of the fire.
Tooker was in the Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike market around 7:30 p.m. Sunday when the fire started.
“Somebody said there was a fire and I came outside and saw the flames and told everybody to get out,” Tooker said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The first firefighters to arrive found the roof on fire. Several neighbors and witnesses said they saw purple flames and heard small explosions.
The roof later collapsed, and crews were working to fully extinguish the fire until about midnight, Battalion Chief Eric Heath said.
Mutual aid was requested from the Meriden and Cheshire fire departments and additional crews were requested from Plainville and Hartford to cover the rest of the town.
No injuries were reported, Heath said. The fire marshal’s office is investigating and has requested assistance from state police.
The state Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit is assisting in determining the cause and origin, said state police spokeswoman Tanya Compagnone.
“The case is in the very early stages. Our FEIU was out all night last night and are still on scene today working on this with Southington,” she said.
Southington resident Nathan Price worked at Tops for a year and a half and was on the job when the fire broke out Sunday.
“Someone came in and said the back of the building was on fire and we needed to call 911,” Price said. “So I ran out, called 911, and got inside on the intercom and told everybody to get out of the building.”
Price still didn’t see the deli employees so he ran to the back to make sure they got out. The five employees and two customers were huddled in the McDonald’s parking lot across the street when emergency crews arrived.
“By that time everyone was out, but we lost the building,” Price said. “It was all too unreal. We worked there for a really long time, it was like a second home and it’s gone now.”
The store employed about 30 workers, seven of whom were full-time. About a half-dozen stood in the McDonald’s parking lot Monday to discuss the fire, comfort Salerno and Tooker and consider their next moves.
“We’re taking it one day at a time right now,” said Ellen Misbach, who left her shift at 6 p.m. shortly before the fire broke out.
Representatives from the state fire marshal’s office and Southington Fire Department were on scene as contractors from Green Construction and Restoration secured the area surrounding the heavily damaged building. Contractors used excavation equipment to claw away at the rear to allow investigators safe access.
Richard Morris, an independent fire investigator for Nationwide Insurance, queried Salerno about potential cooking at the rear of the building, and what equipment may have been in use at the time.
He also described the claims process as “very detailed.” Salerno, who has owned the business for 40 years, said he’s prepared to work closely with the insurance company on the claims over the next few days and weeks.
Tops Market was founded in 1951 by the Topshe family. Salerno bought the business in 1980 and doubled its size. The store was recognized by IGA as a Four Star Store, and the Salernos later opened Carmela Marie catering.
Salerno, Tooker and Tops have also supported the local community through philanthropic activities. Tops has supported organizations such as the Southington YMCA, Bread for Life, Southington Social Services, United Way of Southington, Southington Educational Foundation, Rotary Club of Southington, The Calvanese Foundation and Unico.
“From what John and Betsy have done for this town, donations, helping out and volunteering, you can’t put a price on that,” said John Moise, a member of the Board of Fire Commissioners. “That’s the significance of this loss. Plus the loss of employees’ jobs, they have to deal with that and get through that somehow.”
Salerno intends to rebuild, but wants to ensure the insurance will cover today’s construction costs, he said in a text message.
A vigil was planned for 7 p.m. Monday at McDonald’s.
”With all they’ve done for this community, now it’s the community’s turn to help the owners out,” Moise said. “And knowing the community the way I do, they will be helping out the owners and the employees, like they do other people who are victims of fires.”