Monday, February 28, 2005

A fire that began yesterday at a Salvation Army building spread quickly to neighboring businesses, but no injuries were reported.

Fire guts Maui

Ah Fook's Supermarket is destroyed
in a blaze that sweeps through
Kahului Shopping Center

A raging fire fueled by strong winds destroyed Ah Fook's Supermarket, one of the oldest family-run stores on Maui, yesterday and affected several other businesses at the Kahului Shopping Center.

At one point the flames jumped across the street and ignited a fire on the roof of the state library branch which was quickly extinguished by firefighters.

Ah Fook's, a Maui institution, was planning to celebrate its 50th anniversary at the center's location this year.

"I'm very shocked and saddened that this happened," said Raymond Hew, general manager of Ah Fook's Supermarket for the past 25 years. "It affects a lot of lives, shoppers and workers."

Firefighters responded to a fire at 4:15 p.m. at the Kahului Shopping Center, 65 W. Kaahumanu Ave.

Maui Deputy Fire Chief Neal Bal said the blaze started sometime around 4 p.m. at a building occupied by the Salvation Army. Minutes later the building was engulfed in flames, and the fire began to spread to other buildings. The Salvation Army's thrift store was also destroyed in the fire.

"We had to evacuate the whole shopping center," Bal said.

Firefighters contained the blaze at about 8:50 p.m., Maui County spokeswoman Ellen Pelissero said.

Pelissero said the fire started near the Salvation Army thrift store. The store was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived.

Earlier, at about 5:50 p.m., firefighters thought the fire was contained, but high winds spread flames to the other side of the shopping center, destroying T.J.'s Oriental Food Mart.

The fire is under investigation.

Authorities said several businesses were harmed by the fire. There were no reports of injuries.

The age of the building, its tar roof and 15-mph winds contributed to the spread of the fire, he added. "It went all the way down, jumped over and came back up," said Bal.

Hew, who had already started making plans for the 50th-anniversary celebration of the store, said he was unsure whether the supermarket would reopen. "I guess we're going to the landlord and see what direction they want to go."

"It's too premature," he said. "They're going to have to assess, see the damage."

Hew estimated about a half-dozen of his employees were evacuated from the store, which normally closes at 4 p.m. on Sundays. Hew said he had yet to talk to the shift manager.

Several explosions occurred at Ah Fook's as firefighters battled the blaze. About 60 employees work at the supermarket.

As the fire continued into the night, crowds of residents gathered on the outskirts of the shopping center.

Many lamented the destruction of Ah Fook's.

"I'm sad," said Wailuku resident C.J. Hernandez. "I hope they rebuild."

Hernandez said she shops two to three times a week at Ah Fook's because of the fresh fish.

"They have the cheapest produce," she said.

Kahului resident Jo-Ann Barona said she liked the poi, poke and bentos and the friendly atmosphere of the family-run store.

Residents also feared for the shopping center.

"For many retirees the shopping center was a gathering place where they played cards and had conversations," said Alicia Sardinha, who along with husband John owns a travel business at the center. "We're losing a part of our childhood,'' she said. Both were thankful that the flames had spared their travel business.

Ah Fook's has been serving Maui residents for more than 80 years. It was founded in 1917 by Tam Kui Fook, a Chinese immigrant.

After his death in 1946, his wife, Margaret, became the president of the company. She died in 1975.

Ah Fook's is widely known for its fresh vegetables and meats, bought from many Maui farmers. It has employees whose families have worked there for generations.

Fook's relatives continue to run the store, and the family ties to Hawaii reach back to the early 1900s. The family has played a part in contributing to the development of Maui and China.

Fook and a number of Chinese in Kula helped to finance Sun Yat-sen's political effort to overthrow the Manchu dynasty and unite China in 1911.

"He was one of the greatest supporters," Fook's son, George Tam, told the Star-Bulletin.

Fook arrived on Maui at age 19 in 1906 and worked for several years as a cook for Frank Baldwin, the son of Henry P. Baldwin, who helped to found shipping and sugar conglomerate Alexander & Baldwin Inc.

The Chinese immigrant also managed the Paia Club House, a boardinghouse for single men, before he married Margaret Set Kyau Fong. She came from a family of business people in Kula who operated stores and a construction business.

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