Tony Massey, operator of Buford icon The Dam Store, speaks to an onlooker Wednesday. The residential area connected to the store and restaurant, where the Masseys and their four children lived, was destroyed by fire. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)
BUFORD — The Dam Store has operated in Buford for more than 60 years, selling a little bit of everything to visitors of Gwinnett’s part of Lake Lanier.
A fire that began there before midnight Tuesday appears to have spared the store, at least for the most part. The connected residential structure, the one where the managers — Tony and Noel Massey — lived with their four children, was destroyed.
Six-year-old Rhett Massey, though, kept disaster from becoming tragedy.
“The little one actually woke up and saved their lives,” grandfather Dave Clark said Wednesday, surveying the burnt wreckage.
Gwinnett County firefighters arrived at the store, located at 1250 Buford Dam Road, at about 12:05 a.m. Wednesday. They found the building engulfed in flames, spokesman Capt. Tommy Rutledge said.
As the second-story roof collapsed, crews deployed multiple lines to try and squelch the flames.
“Firefighters worked fast and were able to keep the fire from spreading into the actual retail side of the building,” Rutledge said. “The store may have sustained some degree of residual damage, but no actual fire damage.”
The blaze was under control by about 12:40 a.m, but not before the home the Masseys had moved into just three months ago was destroyed. Massive piles of flame-sered wood and at least two destroyed boats sat outside Wednesday.
“They just really got started and were doing great,” Clark, the father of Noel Massey, said. “They’ve got everything they own, every penny they owned was tied up here.”
Still, things could’ve been much worse. The family was alerted to the flames by 6-year-old Rhett, who smelled smoke. They escaped as smoke alarms sounded and no injuries were reported.
The Masseys declined interview requests Wednesday afternoon. An emotional Rhett clung to his mother’s leg.
“We are fortunate that everyone was able to escape unharmed, especially given the intensity of the fire on arrival,” Rutledge said.
The exact cause of the fire in undetermined and under investigation. A representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was on scene to help fire investigators, a common practice when there is significant damage to a commercial structure.
Throughout the day Wednesday, longtime supporters and curious onlookers stopped at the property to take pictures.
Sandra Wood said her son’s first job was at the adjoining restaurant, and that her family had bought bait for striper fishing at The Dam Store for more than 30 years. Valerie Roberson reflected on everything the shop always had for sale.
“He had all kinds of stuff in there,” she said. “If you couldn’t find it in Walmart, it was in there.”