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Going Up in Flames: My Dream Shop Was Burning to the Ground!

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This excerpt is from Business Boy to Business Man,  the memoir of Robert Verreault as told to Denis Ledoux. The memoir was published in 2013. During the summer, I took a longer supper break and, after returning to the shop — where I had over a hundred and fifty employees — I might stay until […]

This excerpt is from Business Boy to Business Man the memoir of Robert Verreault as told to Denis Ledoux. The memoir was published in 2013.

During the summer, I took a longer supper break and, after returning to the shop — where I had over a hundred and fifty employees — I might stay until the second shift went home at 11. The evening of July 18 was no different.

When I was young, I used to take care of emergencies at the shop myself, but no more. My summer camp’s telephone number was unlisted, and I had given it only to family and friends so I usually had a lot of quiet when I was there.

That night, however, the phone startled me awake at about 3:30. In the darkness, as I reached for the lamp, right away, I had a bad feeling. A middle-of-the-night call was not a compressor gone wrong. It was something much more serious. Could it be one of my parents was sick? Or, my wife’s? We had a lot of salesmen out on the road. Had one of them been in an accident? I stumbled through the camp to reach the phone in the large family room. When I answered, I heard a woman, announcing herself as a telephone operator, asking if I would take a phone call from a police officer. “He said you would want to be disturbed,” she added.

I said immediately, “Yes.”

Had the police caught a thief in the shop? But, what would a thief want with conveyors? I knew, of course, that was not what a thief would have come for—a thief would have been looking for cash in the office.

But it was not a thief the officer was calling me about. What he said next shocked me.

“The Diamond Machine plant is on fire, Mr. Verreault.”

“What?” I shot back stunned.

“The shop is on fire. You’ll want to come down.”

“Is it bad?” I asked.

“It’s real bad. It’s going up in flames.”

Having a shop was my childhood dream and now it was going up in flames! I can hardly describe how awful that news made me feel. I hung up and saw that my wife had gotten up, too.

“The shop is on fire,” I told Cécile.

I jumped into my Dodge truck and drove down the rough camp road. But, by the time I got to the end of it, I noticed that I was having a hard time breathing. I wasn’t getting enough air. I stopped the truck and tried to breathe. Was I having a heart attack? I made myself breathe more deeply. I noticed I was able to do that, so I knew then I was not having a heart attack. What I was having was an anxiety attack.

As I crossed town, I kept hoping that this was a false alarm. Of course, “a false alarm” did not make sense. The officer would never have played a joke on me. But, I wondered, “Perhaps he had exaggerated!” I could not admit to myself that I might be losing everything I had ever worked for in a huge fire. How could everything be going up in flames?

It was going up in flames all right.

As I approached the shop, I could not see any flames or glow in the sky. “Perhaps the fire wasn’t that big!” I reassured myself. But, as I rounded the corner, I saw flames shooting in the sky and, above the flames, a terrible glow. I knew then that I was going to lose my shop, but I told myself I would not lose my business.

I parked my truck as soon as I could find a spot and walked toward the shop building. It was glowing red. An awful sight! And hovering above the glowing building was dark smoke.

The fire chief saw me and asked what was it we did in the front of the building. I told him it was the assembly room for the electrical components.

“Well, it’s gone,” he said.

The insulation surrounding the wiring was causing the heavy, black smoke. He added that the policeman assigned to do a drive-by had missed doing so that night because of a huge accident on the turnpike that had called for his attention. That’s why he had not caught the fire when it was still small. Later, when he was free to resume his inspections, he had noticed the flames at about the same spot as I.

“The hydrants are clogged,” the fire chief said. “There’s a very low water flow.” The pipes leading to the nearest hydrants were almost useless. There was only a trickle of water.

It was a warm night, but I was shivering. I could see that a few of my men were around me, and a few others joined us every once in a while. We stood together not believing what was happening. Everyone was stunned. “The floor’s full of orders ready to be shipped!”

“Well, let’s wait and see,” I said. From the nervous wreck I had been at the end of the camp road, I had become the calm leader again on the outside. But, I did not feel calm inside. Instead, I wanted to cry. My dream shop was going up in flames!

Almost everything in the building had been metal. As it grew to be morning, the sun rising over the gentle hills that Lewiston is built on, we could make out how the fire had twisted metal beams and roofing. The flames were beginning to get less intense. It was clear that the fire had passed its peak and would now be coming to a gradual end.

Years after going up in flames.

I rebuilt Diamond Machine Company and the years after the fire were years of great expansion. We went from about $2,000,000 in sales the year before the fire to about $12,000,000 by 1982.


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