Saturday, March 27, 2010

A community's tragedy

This has not been a good week in Colonial Beach, the town where I spend my summers. On Tuesday, the owner of a local coffee shop, which has become a gathering spot for many in the town, died tragically in an explosion while trying to remove the old gas tanks under the property.

I originally met Jeff, his wife Julie and their girls, when I still had my bookstore in town and they were weekend visitors on the hunt for Beanie Babies. A few years later, they bought an old Esso station in the heart of downtown -- such as it is in this very small community -- and turned it into The Espresso Station. They built a second home in town and commuted to Colonial Beach from their home in Fredericksburg to run the shop which quickly became a local favorite, especially for some of the women's groups in town, who'd stop by after meetings at church or on Sunday morning after services. Father Ron, the minister at St. Mary's Episcopal Church across the street, considered the coffee shop his second office.

A group of local citizens organizing to try to make improvements in the town gathered there regularly. And a whole bunch of my friends were hooked on their iced coffee drinks, especially when trying to wake up at dawn on a hot summer day to get things started for the town's Market Day events.

Recently Jeff and Julie hoped to expand their outdoor patio area. To do that, the old underground gas tanks had to go. Jeff got a permit and with the help of a friend tried to remove the tanks himself. Apparently no one had warned him of the danger of the fumes left after the tanks themselves had been drained. Something -- heat from a power saw or a spark -- ignited those fumes and caused the explosion that cost him his life and left his family and friends devastated.

I have a million and one questions about why any responsible government agency would approve an amateur doing a dangerous task normally reserved for very highly paid professionals, but for the moment that's hardly the point. The town has lost a man who was devoted to bringing something special to our community, a business that had staying power despite economic ups and downs, a place where people could sit with friends over a cup of coffee, a piece of White House apple cake or a muffin and engage in some lively conversation.

Though I've spoken with several people since this happened, including my friend Father Ron, no one knows for certain if Julie will have the heart or the means to keep the business going. It was, in so many ways, an expression of love for the town, not a profit-maker. For the sake of the community, I hope she and her girls will carry on. For now, I just hope they know how very much they were appreciated and how deeply our hearts ache for her loss.


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