Jodi Foster did everything in her power to make her second-floor, two-bedroom apartment on West Main Street in Alexandria feel like home when she moved in with her son this past January. 

She bought baskets at garage sales and filled them with plastic plants and string lights. A lamp – a birthday gift from her cousin – illuminated a corner of the living room. In the kitchen, her mother’s photo hung above the cabinets, and a tray that read “blessings” hung above the stove. 

And what a blessing it once was, Foster, 54, said just days after the apartment building caught fire and left several families homeless in Licking County. 

More than 30 fire apparatuses responded to the fire on Alexandria’s West Main Street on May 30. Credit: Brian Hammond

Foster, who spent most of her life in Licking County, moved into the unit at 14 W. Main Street at the end of January after an eviction and seven weeks in a motel, thanks to the help of organizations like Licking County Coalition for Housing and her church, the Christian Life Center in Heath.  

“This was my second chance,” she said Wednesday. “It was so important that we didn’t lose this place. Now, I have to start all over again, and I don’t know what walls I’m going to hit.”

Foster is among the 11 residents and two businesses displaced by the two-alarm fire that overtook her apartment building just before 1 p.m. Thursday, May 30. 

Though Foster wasn’t home at the time of the fire – she was mid-shift at Ross Granville Market, where she has worked for nearly two years – her son and his dog, Willow, were there. 

“He said smoke was billowing out of the lights in the hallway and pouring through the ceiling in our kitchen,” she said. “He got her harness on her but ran out without even his shoes. … He ended up with blisters on his feet.” 

Foster said the day “felt like an eternity,” between leaving work, finding her son in the chaos, meeting with the local chapter of the Red Cross and figuring out where the three of them would sleep that night. 

On Monday, June 3, inspectors deemed the building structurally sound, but residents have not been allowed inside to retrieve their belongings – clothes, family heirlooms, bags of dog food, social security cards or furniture – as of Wednesday afternoon. 

The building remains vacant, with plywood over a front door and several windows, and St. Albans Fire Chief Michael Theisen said it would be a long time before the building would be habitable again. 

“It’s going to be a total gut job,” he said. “The entire second floor will need a complete remodel – we had to cut a couple holes in the roof.” 

At this point, the cause of the fire remains under investigation, though Alexandria Police Chief Dan Bunting said the local police department – formed earlier this year after the department became defunct in 2012 – doesn’t have the resources to investigate. The organization opted to bring in fire investigators from the Columbus Fire Department’s arson investigation unit and the Licking County Sheriff’s Office. 

Building owner Steve Baldwin said he couldn’t comment on the status of the building or the fire until ongoing investigations are finished. 

Martha’s Bath and Body

Though the second-floor apartments sustained the most damage in the fire, the ground floor residences and businesses will remain closed while the building undergoes inspection and repairs. 

Martha’s Bath and Body, a brick-and-mortar shop owned by longtime Alexandria residents Ben and Polly Gorringe, opened on the ground floor of the building just six months ago. 

Every detail of their shop was picked by the couple, including the sign painted by a local artist, the dark walls and built-in shelves lined with handmade soap created with milk from their goats.

Today, soot covers every surface in the shop, and the smell of smoke lingers in the air. 

Tiles on the floor of Martha’s Bath and Body reveal where furniture sat on the day of the fire. Credit: Julia Lerner

The storefront “was a dream,” Ben Gorringe said Monday. “It was the culmination of a lot of work.” 

He said the community responded to the fire immediately: Strangers and family members arrived to help them pull stuff out of the storefront. 

“It’s kind of nice to see the community come together, but it’s also sad,” he said. “Months of work need to be redone.” 

The Gorringes plan to rebuild and reopen their shop as soon as they are able, but they don’t know when that might be. 

Maynards Upscale Thrift Stores, the other business on the ground floor of the building, announced via Facebook it would be closed permanently. 

What happened? 

Don and Lesa Hooper own Ragamuffins coffee shop across Main Street from where the fire occurred. They and their employees could see smoke roiling from windows of the upstairs apartments, and then they saw one of the residents on a porch roof over the entrances to the first-floor shops.

“As soon as he got outside on the roof, I saw thick, brown smoke pouring out of the window behind him,” Don Hooper said on Monday as he was pouring coffee for customers.

Lesa Hooper said several of the tenants of the apartments affected by the fire are customers of the coffee shop, and a few came there after they evacuated the burning building – including the man who had been on the roof – for water and a place to rest while contemplating their immediate future.

Next door to the building that burned, Wendi Zigo, co-owner with Jenny Sue Bilderback of The Village Spa in Alexandria said that Bilderback smelled smoke and went to the alley behind the spa and ran into a man who found the fire and urged them to get out.

Flames were shooting from second-story windows in the back of the building.

“Customers went that way,” Zigo said, pointing to the front door, “and we all went out the back.”

Zigo was quick to compliment the dozens of firefighters from several departments who kept the most recent fire from spreading to adjacent buildings. If not for their quick work, she said, the entire block could have gone up in flames. 

Amy Pausch discusses the histories of Alexandria’s fire while standing behind 14 W. Main, which was hit by fire on May 30. Credit: Alan Miller

It wouldn’t be the first time that happened. 

Amy Pausch, whose roots run deep in the Alexandria area, was at the fire scene on Monday morning with a book containing the history of Alexandria. 

“In 1905, the whole block burned down,” she said. “In 1980, it burned again, but not as bad.”

The buildings destroyed by fire more than a century ago were all wooden structures, according to the history book. 

“The buildings were mostly old and were all frames, and were not what the business of this place demanded,” wrote the book’s author. “They are gone, and what we need now is to cover these lots with several good brick business blocks.”

But even brick buildings are not fireproof, as witnessed last week.

Now what? 

Rod Cook, executive director of the Red Cross of East Central Ohio in Newark said that Red Cross case workers are helping four of the households from the building.

“Besides providing the standard financial assistance, we’re also working with a couple of cases that have special medical needs,” Cook said.

The amount of financial assistance is based on household size, and the money can be used for immediate needs such as food and clothing, he said.

But that support, Foster said, quickly ran out. Funds helped cover a couple days in a motel and clean clothes, and donations from Alexandria community members helped pay for five extra nights in the motel. 

Come Friday, Foster doesn’t know where she and her son will stay, if she can’t come up with the $85 per night her motel room costs. 

And with limited housing available in Alexandria – and across Licking County – some residents don’t know where they’ll go long-term.

“If anyone has any open apartments in the Alexandria area, please let us know,” Cook said, adding that each time such a disaster happens, it reduces the number of lower-cost apartments available in a very tight housing market in Licking County. And they aren’t being replaced, he said.

“This is just an ongoing dilemma,” he said.

Foster said she’ll likely have to move farther from her workplace.

“To find something affordable, I’m going to have to pretty much move to Egypt,” she said. “To find something close to work, I’m going to have to sell my soul. So many of us who work in Granville can’t actually afford to live in Granville.” 

Foster said other Alexandria residents – particularly Brian Hammond, who has been leading the organization of donations and support for displaced families – have been incredibly helpful with funds, clothes and food. 

“I feel so blessed to be part of the community that I’m in,” she said. “I am really going to miss living in Alexandria. The apartment was perfect. It was home.”

Donation bins have been set up at the Alexandria Church of Christ, the Alexandria Post Office, Ragamuffins Coffee just across the street from the burned building, the Alexandria Methodist Church, the Alexandria Baptist Church and the Alexandria Public Library. 

Furniture donations can be made at the churches by appointment, Hammond said.

During Sunday services at the Church of Christ, the Methodist church and the Baptist church, parishioners will be collecting donations in cash and or by check (with “fire fund” in the memo line) for the displaced families. Last Sunday, the churches collected more than $1,700, divided evenly between the displaced residents. 

The Hoopers, at Raggamuffins Coffee, are taking up a collection for gift cards for the displaced residents, and the Red Cross has asked anyone with an apartment for rent and those willing to make donations to help those who lost virtually everything in the fire to contact them at 740-349-9442. 

“We’ve been through a lot, but we’ve survived every time,” Foster said. “We have a 100% success rate of surviving.” 

These journalists from The Reporting Project contributed to this story: Katie Corner, Julia Lerner, Alan Miller, Ellie Owen, Sarah Sollinger, Andrew Theophilus and Caroline Zollinger. is the nonprofit news organization of the Denison University Journalism Program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.