Merlin owner, employees 'devastated' after Saturday fire

Area still smelled of smoke Sunday

CRYSTAL LAKE – The smell of smoke remained in the air Sunday in the parking lot of Country Donuts on Virginia Street.

It lingered from the night before.

Just steps away, Merlin 200,000 Miles Shop, 191 W. Virginia Road, was charred and boarded up after a Saturday fire that caused about $175,000 in damage.

Jeff Strauss and his wife, Heather Hennemann-Strauss, bought the business more than 12 years ago. The location just celebrated its 40th year in business, he said.

“I need to focus on my employee family’s well-being and my customers,” Strauss said in a statement Sunday. “We are all devastated and heartbroken that this tragedy has occurred. At this time, we are not worrying about anything else. Everything else is just monetary and can be replaced. No one was hurt, and we will rebuild.”

Firefighters from more than 10 districts responded about 4:20 p.m. Saturday to battle the fire in below-freezing temperatures. Heavy smoke and flames could be seen coming from the automotive shop. Traffic on Route 14 was redirected, and fire crews stayed on scene until about 8 p.m.

No one was injured in the blaze, Crystal Lake Fire Rescue District said in a news release Saturday night.

The fire appears to have started in an office and spread, according to the release. The building was deemed uninhabitable until repairs are made.

There were no updates on the cause of the fire as of Sunday night, Crystal Lake Fire Battalion Chief William Whyte said.

Crystal Lake resident Tracy Mathesius was driving down Route 14 when she saw smoke coming from Merlin at about 4:43 p.m. She stopped at Fannie May across the street and watched for about 20 minutes.

“I wondered, given the nature of what was burning in there, if something might explode,” Mathesius said, referring to gas and oil that could be present in automotive shops.

She took pictures as she watched the blaze.

“At 4:49 p.m., the fire broke through the roof,” she said. “I didn’t see it start or anything, but it seemed like it would die down, then come back. I was freezing, and it looked like it calmed down, so I left about 5:07 p.m.”

Meanwhile, employees at Country Donuts evacuated to CVS Pharmacy. The Crystal Lake staple was closed for more than three hours.

When they returned, some doughnuts smelled like smoke.

“Between evacuating the store and tossing out damaged doughnuts, we lost about $2,000,” Country Donuts part-owner Scott Offord said Sunday. “It’s a tiny drop in the bucket compared to what Jeff [Strauss] lost over there.”

Offord said they gave doughnuts that weren’t smoky to the Salvation Army.

On Sunday, debris scattered the property atop sheets of ice that extended into the street between the shop property and Country Donuts. A coating of ice covered the shop’s exterior brick wall and countless icicles hung from the roof.

A message on the business’ Facebook page directed Crystal Lake customers to visit the Merlin shop in Cary, 534 Northwest Highway, which also is owned by the Strauss family. Records of customers’ vehicles can be accessed at the Cary location. 

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