Three years of hard work had literally turned into ashes for the couple who operated the Village Store in Ngerusar, Airai as fire razed it to the ground on Wednesday night.

Lolita Ancheta rushed to Airai upon learning that the store which she and her husband, Bangladesh-citizen Mamun Islam, had worked hard to build in the last three years had been engulfed by fire in just a matter of minutes.

Lolita was at the grocery store in Koror when she learned about the incident and was only alerted about it through a series of phone calls from her husband which she missed to pick up. Sensing that something was off with the calls, she dialed back her husband’s number only to hear the bad news on the other line.

Seeing the store transformed into a pile of charred rubble, Lolita could only weep. She did not even mind seeing that a few bystanders were laughing at her misfortune, devoid of sensitivity.

Mamun Islam, meanwhile, recalled how the fire swept over the store so fast. He said in an interview with Island Times that he and his brother where inside the front area of the building when the fire started. He was at the cashier’s desk guarding the store while his brother, who was also in the same room, was packing betel nut. In fact, Mamun said that he was able to cater to one customer when a few minutes later something blew off from the bedroom at the back of the building. A few seconds after, he and his brother found themselves fleeing for safety outside the property as fire raged across the building.

No one was reported hurt during the incident except Mamun sustained a tiny cut on his forehead that was bleeding a little while he was interviewed by Island Times.

Both Mamun and Lolita told Island Times separately that there was nothing inside the bedroom, where they believed the fire started, that could have ignited a fire. Inside the room, there was only an electric fan – which was not used during the incident, and an air conditioner. They are also both confident that nothing in their electrical line is faulty that could have triggered such incident. Both, however, alleged that it is a case of arson.

Outside the room where they believed the fire had originated, there were stocks of loaded Butane Gas Canisters which they believed had contributed to the swift spreading of the fire.

According to Lolita, this was not the first time that the store had been allegedly burned. Last year, there was an alleged attempt by an unidentified individual to burn down the property but the fire was immediately extinguished after an American, who happened to drive by the area, saw that the façade of the store was already on fire and hence alerted them about it. According to Lolita, they had just closed down the store at midnight that time when they heard the American knocking at their door to inform them about the fire. The fire, at its early stage, was immediately put out. It did not cause major damage hence, prompting them to not report the incident to the authorities. Lolita said that they found that the posters stuck on the wall outside their store had been allegedly burned down in that incident last year.

Based on the official statement of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) which was furnished to the media yesterday, September 20, when the Fire and Rescue Officers arrived at the scene, the property was already “fully engulfed by fire.”

Even firefighters who were off-duty came in to respond to the scene. The Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) personnel also assisted the Fire and Rescue Officers in putting out the fire.

“The fire incident is under investigation. Once the investigation is completed, we come forth with our findings,” the statement from MOJ reads.

“The Bureau of Public Safety and the Ministry of Justice would like to assure the public that we will continue to work to improve public safety and security throughout the Republic.

A hard start, a hard end

Lolita narrated how she and her husband started the business three years ago. It was a tough start, she said. Mamun used to work as a security guard before but had managed to save a few cash to start the business, little by little, until it flourished. This year, they had just opened a branch in Koror, Lolita said, adding however that a big chunk of their income was sourced from the store that had been burned.

The two could only hope that a thorough investigation will be conducted by the authorities about the incident. (Rhealyn C. Pojas)