After losing nearly everything in a fire, Ryan Justice and his mother, Pat, say they realize how much they have to be thankful for.
Their business was born from plastic flowers for sale at the parking lot more than three decades ago, and grew into an 11,000-square-foot enterprise with several employees specializing in custom artificial arrangements before an undetermined source sparked a winter blaze which left everything inside burnt, blackened or washed away.
The mother and son team look back on the day and laugh now, although at the time it was the latest in a series of devastating personal losses. Ryan, who is learning the art of running a successful flower business from his retired mother, actually fought the fire in his bare feet wearing only his underwear.
“I didn’t wear a belt that day and when I ran from the restaurant with a fire extinguisher in both hands and my pants fell down so I just kicked them off in the parking lot. I was out there barefoot in my boxers in the freezing rain,” he said, chuckling as he recalled the incident and adding he forgot he had ditched his pants until his mother noticed his unusual appearance as a crowd gathered to battle the blaze.
“There were so many people around and there he stood in striped boxers ... orange-striped boxers,” Pat Justice added with a giggle of her own.
“My pants was out there under a fire truck,” he said, explaining someone found the trousers and returned them.
Despite their efforts, the building, which was home to Justice Flowers and a design firm as well as three apartments, “was engulfed in flame from end to end within 22 minutes,” he said, with no injuries or casualties beyond the total loss of their stock and supplies, tools and finished inventory as well as a 1949 Chevrolet Deluxe which Ryan’s grandfather had left to him.
At one point, someone noticed an arrangement of red roses, the favorite of founder Johnie Justice, on top of the debris pile gathered from the burned-out structure. Mother and son vividly recall the image of their flowers and supplies washing out of one side of the building while firefighters worked to extinguish the fire, as well as the weeks of work which followed.
“It was from sun up to way after dark. We were pulling 15-hour days, at least,” Ryan said, explaining they recovered many wet flower arrangements and rotated them on their porch to dry while asking everyone they knew if they could use any available space in attics or garages to store other items needed for the business. “And that was while trying to run the restaurant. My grandmother, Mary, is doing most of the work there now while I learn to run the flower business,” he said, explaining he is also the manager at the family’s well-known JJ Restaurant next door to the flower shop.
Less than a month after the smoke cleared, Justice Flowers was relocated and back in business in the former bank building at the corner of U.S. 60 and Shopes Creek Road.
“It has literally been starting from ground zero,” Ryan said, recalling moments when they had jobs to do but realized they no longer owned even a hammer or screwdriver. Citing comical incidents along the way, the mother and son team said they’ve learned a lot from their misfortune and realized that they are extremely fortunate as a result.
“That’s the only thing that’s got us through it, to laugh at it,” Pat Justice said, adding they’ve come to recognize God’s influence throughout as they consider how much worse things could have been.
“I see God in all of it,” Ryan said, adding his thanks for an uncle who asked them out to breakfast a few minutes before the fire began. “If we had been in there ... where the fire started, we could not have gotten out.”
Pat Justice said people who know she survived a heart attack, and lost a son, her father-in-law and her business within a two-year span have called her “a strong woman,” but she insists she has had plenty of moments when faith carried her through.
“I just turn it over to God,” she said.
Her son agreed.
“This whole thing has been an opportunity to share Christ with people,” Ryan said. ”He’s always on my side.”
With the help of employees who’ve long since earned their place as members of the Justice family, Pat Justice estimates they’ve made a couple of thousand flower arrangements at the temporary location. If all goes well, they expect to be back in their building next to JJ Restaurant by the next Memorial Day flower season.
At the register last week, customer Judy Norris of Ravenswood, W.Va., and friend Patty White of Ashland seemed especially pleased with the four colorful spring mix arrangements they’d found. Norris said she’s been buying flowers from the Justice family “ever since people died and we had to send flowers.
“They are nice people and very helpful and they have so many! You have a real choice, and they’re not expensive — very reasonable,” she said.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2651.