Up in Flames: The future of The Helping Hand Thrift Store is in question as the social service agency assesses how badly the structure was damaged in the fire.Bob Uphues/Staff

A fire that gutted the Helping Hand Thrift Store at 3726 Grand Blvd. in Brookfield spread from a single coat rack to the entire sales floor within minutes, incinerating the store’s entire stock of merchandise, according to the man who called 911 to report the blaze just prior to 10:30 p.m. on April 18.

Michael DiFatta, who owns Grand Tavern across the street, said he couldn’t believe how quickly the flames spread inside the resale shop, which has been a mainstay on Grand Boulevard since the 1970s.

“It went from a little clothes rack to an inferno,” said DiFatta, who was alerted to what was a small fire in the north end of the building by a bar customer who was outside making a phone call. “I’ve never seen something explode like that.”

According to DiFatta, the fire appeared to be caused by sparks falling from a fluorescent light fixture above a coat rack.

DiFatta and his customer went to see if they could get in the front door, but it was locked. Within a couple of minutes, police arrived and began to enter buildings to the north and south of the store to evacuate anyone inside. People were evacuated from the building to the north. The building to the south, at 3730 Grand Blvd., which is also owned by Helping Hand, was vacant.

Brookfield Fire Chief Patrick Lenzi said the northeast corner of the Helping Hand Thrift Shop suffered extensive fire damage and there is severe smoke and water damage throughout the structure.

The two-story building to the south of the store suffered major smoke damage, said Lenzi. Meanwhile, the building to the north of the store sustained minor smoke damage. No injuries were reported.

However, the thrift store’s ground-floor retail space sustained major damage, according to Lenzi.

“It was a devastating fire,” Lenzi said. “Every piece of merchandise on the first floor was consumed.”

Other items being stored elsewhere in the building sustained smoke damage, he added.

The thrift store is operated by Helping Hand, a Countryside-based nonprofit that provides services for children and adults with disabilities. Income from sales at the store helped support the agency’s services and also served as an employment training ground for students with disabilities. It employed a staff of three, along with 25 volunteers.

Helping Hand purchased the property in 1990. The building at 3730 Grand Blvd. is also owned by the agency and was the thrift store’s original location. The second-floor apartment in the past has been used as a residence for adults with disabilities.

Mary Beth Hepp, executive director of Helping Hand, said the organization does not know what the future will be for the former thrift store. In addition to the fire, the building’s basement flooded during Thursday’s storm.

“On top of this, there was 5 feet of water in the basement,” Hepp said.

Helping Hand is not taking donations for the thrift store at this time, said Hepp. Anyone wishing to donate financial contributions can call 708-352-3580 or go online at hhcenter.org.

“We want to continue to serve the community, fulfill our mission and continue to have a presence in Brookfield,” said Hepp.

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