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Kim Phillips: Downtown fire brings out the best of what Denton has to offer — its people

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Kim Phillips

Today's is the sixth and final article in this holiday series where we've looked at Denton through a lens similar to the one through which George Bailey saw his own life in the 1946 Christmas movie classic It's a Wonderful Life.

Christmas has come and gone. On a typical year, we would've spent the past few days chilling out. Maybe put some decorations back in the attic. Maybe clean out the lap drawer in our desk at the office. On a typical year, this is a quiet week spent waiting to flip that final page on the calendar.

Firefighters dowse nearby buildings early Tuesday morning to keep the fire from spreading or burning down the entire east side of the downtown Square. The fire destroyed the Downtown Mini Mall, while other businesses suffered smoke and water damage.Courtesy photo
Firefighters dowse nearby buildings early Tuesday morning to keep the fire from spreading or burning down the entire east side of the downtown Square. The fire destroyed the Downtown Mini Mall, while other businesses suffered smoke and water damage.
Courtesy photo

But this is not a typical year, and our week of in-between has been full of shock, tears and as strange as it sounds, miracles sandwiched between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Shrill sirens stirred Isabel Deniz awake from a deep Christmas night slumber. She opened her eyes to red and blue lights bouncing across her bedroom walls. Her downtown apartment just a block off the square, Isabel was one of the few Dentonites aware of an inferno gaining ground on the Square.

Isabel threw on some clothes, grabbed her camera and headed for the Square. Relief filled her at the sight of her boyfriend Aaron there among the strobe lights of emergency vehicles, fire trucks staging for a fight as fire roared out of the Downtown Mini Mall's roof in the middle of the Square's east-side block. Aaron had just left his job at Paschall Bar, a speakeasy on the upper floor of the Square's oldest building just three doors down the sidewalk from the fiery building.

Isabel and Aaron stood watching as hungry flames belched thick, black smoke into the pre-dawn sky.

"It was eerily creepy and quiet, empty except for the firefighters," Isabel said describing the Square in the wee hours of Dec. 26. "All we could think about was that we were watching a piece of Denton die. It was heartbreaking."

Horror; fear that the fire would devour the whole block. Despair at the feeling of helplessness. "There was not a thing we could do. We could only watch the flames," Isabel said.

The fire of Christmas 2017 is the devastating drama that filled our week of in-between.

It's not our first Christmas fire, you know. In Denton-Record Chronicle article Wednesday, Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe chronicles dates of major fires that have tried to take out the Denton Square throughout history. The irony of the date of the second great fire on her list sucked the wind out of me: Christmas Eve 1875. That night, the north side of the Square and the courthouse went down in flames.

What happened Christmas night as we slept was terrible. We have some recovery time ahead, and it won't be easy for a lot of people. But Denton has been through this before. We can do this.

While the embers were still smoking, unscathed businesses opened their doors to first responders and fellow businesses for warmth and coffee. Volunteers were organizing on Denton's social channels, eager to help. Neighbors offered hands and hugs.

"I loved how all the other area fire departments came to Denton," Isabel said. "It was emotional just seeing them all pull together, helping each other to save what could be saved."

And that's how we'll make it through this, friends. Denton takes care of our own. Neighbors lock arms to stand against adversity.

Think about George Bailey. As adversity bared its teeth at George's door and his world crumbled around him, Clarence the angel showed George the many good things in his life. By the film's end, George's family, friends, customers and neighbors banded together, pooled their resources and stood ready to do what was needed to help George through that dark hour.

In the same way, Denton is rallying, thankful even in the face of much work the coming weeks and months will require to rebuild. Thanks that no one was injured or killed. Thanks that the whole block did not burn. Thanks that the courthouse still stands. Thanks that the fire of Christmas 2017 left the Square damaged but intact, unlike that Christmas back in 1875.

Tomorrow, a new year begins. This is obviously not the column I had planned to write for this week. But the fire is a wake-up call of sorts. It reminds us how we escaped countless could-have-happeneds that didn't happen. It's drawn us together, as tragedy does. And it illuminates what this holiday column series has been all about and still is: how blessed we are to live this wonderful life in Denton.

Happy New Year.

KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton's original, independent spirit through the city's sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at