Tara Norland stood near the ruins of what used to be her home and business and couldn’t hold back the tears.
The fire that devastated 101 W. Cook St. Sunday was extinguished, but the smell of smoke permeated the clothes, skin and hair of anyone who spent even a few moments Monday standing near the corner of Cook and DeWitt streets.
On the building’s second floor, Norland lived with her mother, Cecilia Lasse, and her 15-year-old brother, Jordan Lasse.
On the ground floor, Norland and Cecilia Lasse operated Flirt, a women’s formal apparel shop whose inventory included prom dresses and bridal gowns — between 300 and 400 of them in the shop, nearly all damaged by smoke and water. Another 200 to 300 dresses were stored upstairs.
A window on the DeWitt Street side of the 119-year-old building was dangling perilously from the second floor. Boards covered up two large areas that used to display prom dresses in now broken windows along Cook Street.
As Norland stood with the arms of her cousin, Brenda Popenfus, wrapped around her for support, a woman that neither of them knew handed over a tan canvas bag filled with personal care necessities — including deodorant, tissues, plastic cups and a hairbrush — and left before Norland could find out her name, or thank her.
For someone who has lost everything,
Norland said, donations such as this mean the world.
And the gifts kept coming — toothbrushes and toothpaste in paper sacks, fresh towels in plastic bags — as people dropped off donations at the scene of the fire.
Popenfus said anybody who wants to donate anything to the displaced family can bring donations to her home at 1201 Coit St., Portage.
Norland couldn’t hold back tears of joy when Mike Cody said he would give her old camera equipment he probably wouldn’t use anymore. Cody said he just retired after 30 years of being a photographer and Norland started up her own photography businesses a couple of years ago.
Wisconsin Rep. Fred Clark stopped by the building early Monday afternoon to tell Lasse that he would do everything he could for them.
“It’s such a shame,” Clark said after talking with Lasse.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society in Portage has offered donations of clothing and other necessities to the family, said a friend, Sarah Malchow.
“They’re pretty much starting from scratch,” she said.
Tom Mooney of the American Red Cross Badger Chapter said the family can receive aid from the Red Cross by calling 233-9300. But as of Monday, he said, no such aid had been requested.
Patrick Kraemer said the building is insured. He bought the building in December 2010 and has owned it since then.
Kraemer said he wasn’t sure how much it was insured for and is having his insurance claims adjusters figure that out for him, as well as a total damage amount.
He said the upstairs was set up as apartments when he took over as the owner and believed they were all up to fire code.
“I’m just making sure my renters are taken care of right now,” Kraemer said.
Cecilia Lasse had a practical request.
“We need a squeegee in here,” she said, in the ruins of Flirt, where damaged dresses were strewn beneath the ceiling’s fallen rafters.
“To squeegee out the water. I’m serious.”
Some of the dresses that had been displayed on mannequins, or hung on hangers, might be salvageable with a professional dry cleaning.
But, Lasse said, it typically costs $75 to dry clean one bridal gown. Her son-in-law Tim said the drycleaners would cut them a deal at $50 a dress, but that would still likely be too rich for their blood.
“I don’t have the money, to be honest with you,” she said. “I don’t have a business anymore, so I don’t know where the income is going to come from.”
The merchandise of Flirt was not insured, Lasse said.
She said she had planned to conduct an inventory Sunday evening, in preparation for an appointment she had with an insurance agent Monday morning.
But, the fire broke out while she was at a cookout at a family home in Marquette County.
Jordan Lasse was home alone. He saw smoke in a pantry area, tried to extinguish it with a fire extinguisher, then called his mother to tell her that their apartment was full of smoke.
On Monday, Jordan was wearing the same baggy shorts and turquoise-colored T-shirt that he wore when he fled the fire Sunday — plus a pair of borrowed shoes that were just a little bit too big.
As Fire Inspector Craig Ratz entered the stairway to the apartment Monday, Jordan asked him if he’d seen any sign of the family’s four cats (he hadn’t) and whether he’d seen Jordan’s skateboard (he had).
Ratz said a cause of the fire is not yet known.
“It’s going to take awhile,” he said.
But with all the burned building material, charred bricks and other debris in the stairway — including pieces of Portage Fire Department hoses, which may or may not be salvageable — there was no way the staircase was safe to use or the apartment safe to enter Monday, Ratz said.
As total as the destruction was, Cecilia Lasse said, not everything was lost.
Before leaving on a vacation trip to Northern Wisconsin, Lasse said she stored treasured family heirlooms, including her father’s railroad watch and her mother’s engagement ring, in a safe in the store.
“I was standing there, watching everything I own go up in flames,” she said — but, once the fire was out, firefighters retrieved the safe, and the jewelry was undamaged.
“Thank God,” Lasse said. “That could have been gone, too.”