John Shepherd holds an antique hammer he used at his workbench the afternoon of the day the Jean Burns Building caught fire. It was handed to him by the incident commander that night after it flew out the window and into the street. Of his shoemaking tools he has collected since he was 20 years old

John Shepherd holds an antique hammer he used at his workbench the afternoon of the day the Jean Burns Building caught fire. It was handed to him by the incident commander that night after it flew out the window and into the street. Of his shoemaking tools he has collected since he was 20 years old

Business owners move forward after downtown Nanaimo fire

NANAIMO – Former tenants of Jean Burns Building find new work spaces and make plans for the future.

One small hammer is all John Shepherd has of his tool collection after a fire devastated the Jean Burns Building in downtown Nanaimo Wednesday.

Shepherd maintained a cobbler workshop on the building’s second floor. He and several other tenants watched from the Vault coffee house across the street as fire and explosions ripped through the building and firefighters battled to contain the blaze.

Fire officials visited the Vault throughout the night to explain firefighting procedures and inform the tenants on tactical decisions. At one point, Capt. Mike Rispin, the incident commander, approached Shepherd and handed him a small hammer that, either by an explosion or the heavy stream of water dousing the blaze, had been blown out of the building.The hammer was soaking wet and had a small scorch mark on its hickory handle.

“He’d already come in and spoken to my wife and he knew a little bit about us and he came right up to me with one of my hammers in his had and he said, ‘Here, this flew out the window onto the road,'” Shepherd said. “My workshop was neat and tidy. I knew exactly where that hammer was. It was on my workshop table, right by the window.”

If the building proves structurally sound, Shepherd and other artisans hope they can get into the building to recover more tools, work and personal belongings.

Shepherd decided to transition from his career in the hospitality industry and go into shoemaking full-time last year and planned to open his shop for business in October after he returned from advanced training for shoe design in Europe.

“I’m still going to go to Europe and do that,” Shepherd said. “The flight’s paid for. The schooling’s paid for. It’s just going to delay things a bit because I won’t have a workshop to come back to.”

The Shepherds’ passports were in the workshop.

Gerda Hofman has already been offered free space in Studio 34 under the Firehouse Grill, but will miss her studio in the Jean Burns building she’d had since 2008. It had good north light, the building was clean and well cared for, the building owner and landlord kept the rent affordable and the tenants formed a community.

“There were good people up there … and we all feel, gosh, we’re not together anymore,” Hofman said.

Hofman can see what’s left of her studio through the building’s blown-out windows.

“It’s a shock,” Hofman said. “The first 24 hours I was in denial.”

Like Shepherd, she had no insurance for her studio, but the main inventory of her 50 years of work is safely stored elsewhere.