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Fire destroys historic Urbanna home

by Larry Chowning

URBANNA—The Town of Urbanna lost one of its treasures Saturday, January 6, when the historic Burton House at 49 Watling Street burned to the ground. It was still smoldering Monday morning.

At about 7:15 a.m. Saturday, in single-digit temperatures, the Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department (MVFD) was called to the home of Beth Justice and Rod McMordie. When firemen arrived minutes later, they said flames and smoke were pouring out of windows on the eastern side of the house.

Justice and McMordie, along with two people renting a room in the house, and one of Justice’s two dogs, got out of the house in time to escape the flames. Justice slipped on a patch of ice and broke her ankle in the process.

The Middlesex County Volunteer Rescue Squad (MCVRS) took Justice and McMordie to Riverside Walter Reed Hospital in Gloucester where they were both airlifted to VCU Medical Center in Richmond.  They have been under observation for respiratory problems. McMordie was released on Monday, said a VCU Medical Center spokesman, and Justice underwent surgery for her ankle on Monday.

Flames and smoke rose 100 feet in the air, igniting the top of a 100-plus-year-old magnolia tree in the yard. A truck and a car in front of the house also caught fire, along with a truck parked on the Urbanna Creek side of the home.

Firefighters were cautious as there were several explosions during the fire, possibly from propane bottles or a gas tank on the truck parked on the creek side, said one fire official. More danger became evident when the truck and car in front of the house on the street ignited. There was no explosion from those vehicles, but firemen and onlookers stayed a good distance away from them.

Before Dominion Energy cut the power to the house, fire also was jumping out of the top of the electric lines on the street and firemen were cautioning onlookers to “stand way back.”

Firefighters concentrated on making sure the fire did not spread to Buddy Wyker’s home next door. Wyker and his wife, Bobbie, were told by firemen to leave their home as heat from the fire began to melt the vinyl siding and cracked glass in windows on the side of their home closest to the fire. Wyker’s house also was taking on smoke, said MVFD fire chief Ray Burch.

Along with the MVFD, the Upper Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department, Hartfield Volunteer Fire Department, Lower Middlesex County Volunteer Fire Department, volunteers from Lancaster and Gloucester, and Dominion Power crews all worked the scene. The LMVFD brought its ladder truck.

Although Urbanna has fire hydrants and a central water system, the only hydrant near Watling Street is on the corner of Cross and Watling streets, which was nearly a block away from the fire. Firefighters had to set up a portable pool in the middle of the street to collect water for pump trucks.

“When I got there, the house was not totally engulfed but it was at least half,” said chief Burch. “It was an old house with old timbers and wood. The fire just went through it in a hurry. It is a horrible thing, but we are very lucky we did not lose any lives.”

Chief Burch said the cause of the fire is under investigation.

The Burton House was in Urbanna’s Historic District and is on the list of Virginia Department of Historic Places. It was described as “an unusual example of a small 19th century house that was expanded to serve as a boarding house. Purchased by Columbus and Lucy Burton in 1882, in time the Burton House became a rambling Victorian structure with projecting gabled bays, bay windows, and porches with decorative sawn work. Burton operated the steamboat wharf at the foot of Watling Street and provided his clients with horse-drawn buggy service to his boarding house.”

Justice is the great-granddaughter of Columbus and Lucy Burton. She and her husband are leaders of a band, Sweet Justice, that is well-known throughout eastern and central Virginia.

The community steps 

up to help fire victims 

There has been an outpouring of support for the victims of the January 6 fire that destroyed the Urbanna home of Beth Justice and Rod McMordie, leaders of the classic rock band Sweet Justice.

Also displaced in the fire were Alexis Lauren Leggett and her boyfriend, Charles Johnson, who had rented living space in the house.

Four GoFundMe sites have been set up and an account has been opened at C&F Bank to donate to benefit the four fire victims, who lost almost everything.

Kerry Robusto started a GoFundMe account at SonaBank in Urbanna under the title “Beth Justice Fire Fund.” Donations also can be made at the bank.

The “Beth Justice House Fire” at was organized by Leah Elisabeth.

Leggett and Johnson lost everything they owned in the fire, wrote Leggett’s mother, Tia Renee Trevallion, on a GoFundMe site that she created. They had been renting a room. Johnson’s truck burned and Leggett’s car was damaged.

Taylor Lockley set up “Fire recovery Fund for Charles” at GoFundMe, and the site notes there is a donation jar at Something Different in Urbanna where Johnson is employed.

Visit Facebook for information on “Community for Sweet Justice Strong,” the account has been set up at C&F Bank at Cooks Corner. Call 757-810-6680 for information.

Mary Atkinson’s Facebook page states she has partnered with “Kakes with a K” (better known as G’s Deli in Saluda) and Shoot for Five Photography to auction a cake and a gift certificate for a family photo session. The auction ends February 6.

The Town of Urbanna staff has set a room aside upstairs at the town hall to house donations of clothing and furnishings. It is unlocked so people can drop things off at any time.

Musician Chris Stanley with Out On A Limb will hold a fundraiser for the victims at 7 p.m. January 19 at Something Different in Urbanna.

On January 13 and 14, the Sportsman Restaurant and Lounge in Richmond will hold a two-day fundraiser with music. Call 236-1911.

Looking for pets

Two pets survived the fire. However, on Facebook Justice’s daughter, Morgan Stewart, said she is still looking for Gracie, a black dog; Molly, a black cat; Wookie, a long-haired gray cat; and Ozzie, a small white and gray cat with a cropped ear.

Justice and McMordie will live with Stewart in Quinton until they rebuild.

“Everyone has been so kind with donations and have been asking for sizes,” Stewart wrote. Here’s a list of the clothes they need with sizes:

Justice: Socks, underwear, leggings (large/xl), shoes (8), tee shirts (large/xl), sweater (large), long sleeve shirt (large) PJs/sweatpants and sweatshirts(large/xl), tank top(xl), coat(xl), any winter gear like scarves gloves and hats.

McMordie: Socks, boxer briefs, work pants and jeans (36×34), work shirts, polos, sweaters, long sleeve shirts (large), sweat pants and sweat shirt/PJs (xl) coat (xl). Winter gear also.

Clothing donations can be sent or dropped off at Stewart’s house at 7925 Quinton Court, Quinton VA 23141.

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