The restaurant is dark and damp. The booths where diners would devour scrambled eggs and toast are now charred to a black crisp.
Walking through Whistle Stop Cafe at Sixth and Greene streets, the counters and walls are so scorched, they look as if they’d crumble to ash if the wind blew through.
Since Thanksgiving night, when someone fire-bombed the restaurant, owner Hanson Carter’s dream of keeping a thriving neighborhood diner has been put on hold. His two employees are now jobless, and Carter is left to wonder why anyone would randomly destroy a business he was trying to grow.
“It makes me sick,” said Carter, stepping over shards of glass and chips of ceiling with a flashlight. “I wouldn’t mind opening another restaurant, but I’m just not so sure about this location anymore because of these types of problems. You can’t help but think, ‘Maybe it’s time to move.’”
At almost $175,000 in damage, the cost of the arson exceeds the cap of what Carter’s insurance company is willing to pay. Even if he had the funds to restore his restaurant, Carter said the crime in downtown Augusta is discouraging him from taking another chance.
Carter bought the diner in March and opened for business in May after the building had sat vacant for more than a year. He gradually accumulated a client base of regulars for breakfast and lunch, with some families remembering the diner from its beginnings in the 1950s, Carter said.
Not even three months after opening, a burglar shattered the glass front window of the restaurant, pried an empty cash register open but left with nothing.
After the burglary, Carter installed a fire and alarm system, and he considered purchasing security cameras next.
On Thanksgiving, shortly before 8:30 p.m., Carter was watching TV when his security company called about the fire.
“This can’t be happening,” Carter remembers thinking. “We had just turned the corner where we were starting to do really good business.”
Investigators said the suspect threw a 5-gallon plastic paint bucket through the window and set the restaurant on fire.
A $12,000 reward has been posted for anyone who has information leading to an arrest, but neither a suspect nor a motive has been narrowed down.
“Nothing has come in yet, period. Not a word,” said Augusta Fire Department Lt. Neal Brown.
As damaging as the Whistle Stop’s fire has been, it’s not an isolated crime. Through October, there were 29 arson incidents in Richmond County in 2011, compared with 21 in all of 2010, according to the sheriff’s office.
Brown said it’s difficult to solve arsons when no tips are brought forward and no evidence leads to a suspect.
“There’s no real thing to put your finger on,” Brown said.
Until Carter figures out the specifics of the coverage with his insurance company, he is unsure whether he will try to bring the diner back.
He sees the fire not as just a business setback, but as a community problem that needs to be fixed.
“I don’t know what I’ll do from here,” Carter said. “It’s just becoming more discouraging to start a business in this economic condition alone, but also things like this that happen ... we need our community leaders. We’re going to have to start making changes in the community.”