PROPHETSTOWN – Cindy Eriks would rather be in Prophetstown cooking food for her customers – her “family” – instead of sitting in her apartment in Dixon.
But in the place where her apartment and restaurant, Cindy Jean’s Restaurant, stood on July 14, 2013, there is now nothing but snow on the ground.
Last Wednesday was the 6-month anniversary of the July 15 fire that destroyed eight buildings in downtown Prophetstown. The fire started about 2 a.m. that morning, in a recycling bin behind Cindy Jean’s Restaurant, which Eriks owned and lived above.
By the spring, construction on the first new building could begin, Mayor Steve Swanson said. The town controls five of the eight lots, he added, and officials hope to acquire two more, making it easier to entice developers to build by donating the lots to them.
Eriks has had more to deal with in the past 6 months than just being displaced. She was diagnosed with post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, also known as chronic Lyme disease, she said, and recently found a specialist who thinks he can treat her.
Eriks is optimistic that a surgery and physical therapy can help her, and she wants to return to Prophetstown to reopen her restaurant. But first, she needs to be healthy enough to run it the way she wants.
“I just don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to physically do anything like that again,” Eriks said. “I don’t know.”
Eriks’ son, Josh Eriks, was living with his mother at the time of the fire. Josh, a senior at the University of Illinois, was working at a summer camp in Hudson, Ill., for children and adolescents with muscular dystrophy. He got a call from his mother and drove back to Prophetstown, arriving by 11:30 a.m.
“I hadn’t fully realized that everything was going to be gone,” he said. “I didn’t realize that there was literally nothing left. I thought that it would just be a lot of fire damage. I didn’t realize that it was literally all going to be ashes.”
Because he was at the camp, he was able to salvage some clothes and his wallet and identification, he said. In the fall, Josh Eriks plans to enroll in the physical therapy program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
It wasn’t until 2 months after the fire that Cindy Eriks got an apartment in Dixon. She said the weeks after the fire were difficult, but life has started to ease up recently.
“I think I’m doing good now,” she said. “Just once in a while, I’ll have something happen to where it’s like total anxiety. A couple months ago I was in the shower and I could smell smoke. I got out real quick, and there was nothing on fire. ... If you smell smoke, you react really quickly.”
Choosing to forgive
Two brothers were arrested and charged in July with starting the fire. The boys, 16 and 12, are due in court Tuesday. They face 17 counts of criminal damage to property, one count of residential arson, and one count of arson – all felonies.
“I would never choose not to forgive,” Cindy Eriks said. “You’re the only person that hurts when you choose not to forgive. I would always forgive these kids, and I just hope and pray that they get down the right avenue, that they end up being better people because of this.”
She also declined to seek restitution from the brothers.
The Rev. Cheri Stewart, of Prophetstown United Methodist Church, said support for the brothers and their family started shortly after the arrest and has only grown stronger.
The night of the fire, Stewart’s church got about 20 pallets of bottled water – the town’s water tower had been emptied fighting the blaze – and donated food, clothing and personal hygiene items for the victims. The donations, which included money for rebuilding and a fund for the victims, continued to make their way to Prophetstown for weeks after the fire.
“Sometimes, you are so caught up in the horrible. But immediately, you could see that out of the devastation there were going to be good things that came from it,” Stewart said. “It came from the community – yes. But there was this outpouring from towns, sending to victims funds, and people from all over the country, who had a connection to Prophetstown, but not necessarily.”
‘There’s fire downtown’
Mayor Swanson was awakened by a phone call the morning of July 15, he said, and the caller told him someone was setting off fireworks downtown.
“It was shortly after the Fourth of July,” he said. “I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it. And I thought, ‘While I’m up, I’m going get a drink of water.’ I went to the kitchen to get a drink of water, and I looked out the window and the sky was orange.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Swanson might get 50 or 60 phone calls a day, he said, adding that if he weren’t retired, he doesn’t know how he would have handled it all.
Larry DeNeve, chairman of the town’s Economic Development Committee, said he learned about the fire from his daughter-in-law, who saw something on Facebook. By about 6:30 that morning, he was downtown.
“All they said was, ‘There’s fire downtown,’” he said. “And with my association with [Prophetstown] Main Street, we work to try and preserve these historical buildings, it was just important to be there and see if there was some way we could help.”
The fire was under control at that point, but the street and the downtown were still packed with residents and first responders.
One of the signs on Cindy Jean’s Restaurant was destroyed within minutes, Cindy Eriks said, but the other hangs on a wall in her Dixon apartment. She also found two framed scripture passages that were burned, but not destroyed.
“It’s a reminder. There were messages from God in that,” she said. “And I know everything is going to be all right someday. But it’s still hard.”
You can help
Prophetstown has set up a fund, “Rebuild Prophetstown Strong,” to help clean up and rebuild the downtown. Donations can be made at Farmers National Bank branches, in Prophetstown, Geneseo and Morrison, as well as at IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union locations.