PROPHETSTOWN – A year ago, Dolores Francis lost nearly everything she owned in a fire that destroyed eight buildings in historic downtown Prophetstown.
Now she’s getting ready to take an 8-day cruise to the southern Caribbean, then make a stop in Florida to see her children and grandchildren.
At 3 a.m. on July 15, 2013, Francis, now 79, was asleep in her apartment while nearly a quarter of the downtown was on fire.
Police officer Bruce Franks took a head count of who had made it out, and Francis was unaccounted for.
Then he and firefighters Jamie Melton, Phillip Garrison and Joe Froelinger broke through her door and woke her up.
About 30 minutes later, the roof of her apartment collapsed onto her bed.
A little after 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, during the town’s 1-year anniversary ceremony in Eclipse Square, Francis presented each of the four men with a plaque and gave them a hug.
“If they hadn’t gotten me up, I’d have never gotten to that stairway,” she said. “So I’m lucky. I’m lucky. I’m very lucky.”
Before the ceremony started, she thanked them for all they had done that day and took a photo with them.
“They say it’s just part of the picture,” she said of the work the first responders did that day. “But it’s a big part. For me, it’s a big part of the picture.”
Three days after the fire, the Rev. Cheri Stewart, of Prophetstown United Methodist Church, led a prayer service in Eclipse Square. She was there again Tuesday night to lead the anniversary ceremony.
“Last year, we were here to pray for Prophetstown with very heavy hearts,” she said. “We were devastated. We were concerned for victims. We were worried. We wondered if the downtown even had a future.
“And my guess is you are here tonight because you remember how hopeless that all felt. We remember the sounds of all the fire trucks and the [semitrailers]. We remember the smell all around town. We remember the sight. ... We remember the devastation, the debris and the feeling of hopelessness.”
While the fire was a tragedy, Stewart said, it was also a defining moment for the town. It brought the town closer together as it supported the victims and each other, and began raising money for the rebuild.
But the town also found a way to forgive, she said.
The day after the fire, two half-brothers were arrested on charges of starting the fire behind Cindy Jean’s Restaurant.
“I don’t think, as a community, we’ll ever put this behind us, I don’t think we’ll ever truly be unified in all the hope, unless we let it go,” Stewart said. “We have to let it go. Forgiveness is the most valuable gift we can give to the boys, to their family. And it’s a gift to the community.”
In the year since the fire, seven new businesses have opened in downtown, said Main Street Executive Director Eileen Detra, including a location for the Prophetstown Historical Society, which lost its building in the fire.
IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union, which has a location less than 100 feet from where the fire was, announced in May that it will be the first to build in the space left empty.
It broke ground on that build Tuesday night. Work is expected to start in the next few weeks and could be finished by the end of 2014 or early 2015.
Mayor Steve Swanson said there are a few interested developers, and plans for the next build could be announced by the end of the year.
“The reality of filling the lot up is probably not good,” he said, adding that the city owns six of the lots, and filling two more would be a good goal.
The credit union’s new branch will take up three of the vacant lots.
Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, submitted remarks into the Congressional Record on Monday night recognizing the anniversary and honoring the town. A representative from her office was at the ceremony to give a copy of the remarks to Swanson.
Swanson said he was tired of talking about the past. He had turned his focus to the future.
That future can be filled with hope, Stewart said, if the town continues to forgive.
“We can complete tonight’s celebration of hope by asking God to search our hearts and find the strength that only God can give us,” she said, “to forgive the two boys.”