COOK — Cook Firefighter Tim Mankowski received a knock Monday evening at the door of his residence — nearby the Cook Dollar Barn — from a woman, walking with her kids, who had noticed smoke coming from the building housing the store.

He immediately went over to make sure everyone in the structure at 114 River Street South, which included eight upstairs apartments, was safe.

Mankowski then proceeded to help fight the fire.

In the end, all occupants of the apartments lost their homes, the Cook Dollar Barn and Gilley’s Naturals, a natural health care products store, were a total loss, and the main street building was torn down before the sun rose Tuesday morning.

“On behalf of the City of Cook, we are deeply saddened by the loss of the two businesses and eight apartments within our community as a result of the Cook Dollar Barn fire,” Mayor Harold Johnston said Tuesday. “This is a devastating tragedy for a small community, but we plan to put our best efforts together to rebound.”

Authorities determined Tuesday evening that the cause of the fire, reported shortly after 6:30 p.m.

Monday, appears to be accidental. An investigation by the St. Louis County Sheriff’s and the State Fire Marshal’s offices revealed the fire appeared to have started inside the Gilley’s Naturals section of the building, located on the main floor north side of the building. The exact cause, however, is unknown, but no foul play is suspected.

The Cook Fire Department was assisted by the Evergreen, Orr, Pike-Sandy, and Tower fire departments, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, the State Fire Marshall’s Office and the American Red Cross. Firefighters were on the scene until about 4:30 a.m., according to Cook Fire Chief Arnie “Pete” Johnson.

The first priority was to “make sure everyone was out,” he said by phone Tuesday.

The occupants of the apartments were accounted for and no injuries were reported. Both stores were closed for the day at the time of the fire.

An excavator was brought in just before midnight to demolish the building. “It was my decision to take the building down,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want anyone to go in there and get hurt.”

Fire crews were called back to the location Tuesday afternoon and worked in the bright sunshine to extinguish flames that had rekindled.

The Red Cross assisted with providing shelter, food and emergency funds to fire victims. A fund, called “River Street Renters Fire Fund,” has also been established at the Cook Area Credit Union to assist victims, and donations will be split among the renters who lost their homes.

Additionally, the Comet Theater’s Facebook page lists items and clothing sizes of the victims for those who would like to help. The page encourages donations of food, toiletries, towels, kitchen items and gift cards. Trinity Lutheran Church in Cook will be the official drop-off place and will be open until 4 p.m. each day, according to the site.

An “event-type fundraiser” will likely also be planned.

A statement on the Gilley’s Naturals website says: “Gilley’s Naturals is sad to announce that we are temporarily closed due to a devastating fire to our physical location. We are taking the next two weeks to focus and reflect on the direction of our business.”

The stores that were destroyed offered “business that we need in Cook ... and it’s gone,” the fire chief added.

“We would like to thank all those who assisted,” said the mayor, “including the fire departments of Cook, Orr, Tower, Pike-Sandy and Evergreen, the Cook Area Ambulance Service, American Red Cross, the Cook Hospital Ladies Auxiliary, St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department, Cook Lions Club, McDonald’s, the Comet Theater, Zup’s and numerous others. We apologize if we have not included someone who supported us in our time of need.”

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