A true citizen

The electric sign that looms over Ev’s Dairy Products still doesn’t work. Although it reopened Saturday, Ev’s Dairy Products spent nearly two weeks recovering from a lightning-induced fire. The surge of electricity shorted out the sign and other electronics in the area. The Center Street business could have been closed much longer if not for a local man.

Marshalltown Fire Chief Steve Edwards presented Don Preston with an Award of Merit at Monday night’s city council meeting, saying Preston’s quick thinking the morning of the fire likely minimized the amount of damage to the building. He did exactly what he was supposed to do.

“He could have just easily drove by and not done anything,” Edward said. “He recognized something was wrong and he did something to correct it.”

Preston, 65, of Haverhill, said it was fortuitous that he even ended up passing by the ice cream parlor, located at 2205 1/2 S. Center St.

Normally, he heads into his job for Parks and Recreation cleaning park rental units around 5:30 a.m. However, on the morning of June 24, the same storm that swept through Marshalltown causing the fire kept Preston home a little longer than normal. After the 2011 wind storm destroyed their garage, Preston’s wife Kendra gets apprehensive when the weather takes a turn for the worse.

He stayed home a little longer to be with her. She told him the lawn mower needed gas. Before he left, he tossed a gas can in his back seat. The fumes from the can made him roll down his van’s window.

Howard Perry, owner of Ev’s, said he heard the lightning hit, but he thought a transformer had exploded. He’s heard transformers explode before. That’s exactly what it sounded like. Perry said his neighbor would later tell him he saw the lightning hit, creating a massive ball of fire. He told Perry it sounded like a cannon being shot.

Meanwhile, minutes later, at about 5:45 a.m., Preston would be heading down Center Street – another peculiarity. Preston said he regularly switches which routes he takes when he drives places, but he rarely takes Center Street to work. However, on the morning of June 24, he was running late; he knew he wouldn’t hit the 5:30 a.m. train on 12th Avenue and would catch all the traffic signals along Center Street. Much to his chagrin, the flashing red light – blinking because of the electrical surge – at the corner of Southridge Road and Center Street impeded his travel.

He doesn’t know what made him look over at Ev’s and notice part of the eve was missing. He doesn’t know what made him turn around once he drove past.

“I knew something was wrong,” Preston said.

With his window down to ventilate the smell of the gas can, he smelled smoke. He looped around and parked his van in front of the business. He began yelling and honking his horn, warning Howard and Howard’s girlfriend Cheryl to get out of the home. He felt the windows. They weren’t hot, but, when he dialed 911, communication center dispatchers told him not to enter the home.

“Hey! Get out! Your house is on fire,” he screamed.

Howard said he finally heard Preston’s cries and woke Cheryl. She wrangled the couple’s dachshunds Molly, Sampson and Barney and their cat Muffin, taking them outside to their pickup. When Howard passed through the living room, the smoke hadn’t even made its way there yet.

Two minutes after Preston called 911, firefighters were on scene, cutting a hole in the roof with a chain saw and dousing the flames with high-powered hoses. They stayed two hours and returned later when the fire rekindled, Howard said. The damage to the building is between $25,000 and $40,000.

Thankfully, firefighters arrived when they did, Preston said. He said he could tell the fire was in the attic. Although he knew it was against his better judgment, he said he knew what he would have done if firefighters had taken a long time to get there.

“I would have broke in and got that guy,” he said. “But (the firefighters) were Johnny on the Spot.”

His coworkers gibe him about the incident, calling him “our hero.”

Edwards said Preston’s humble attitude is typical of people who do such things. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve recognition. Citizens perform acts like Preston’s on a regular basis but rarely get acknowledged because fire officials can never identify them. In his 3.5 years as fire chief, Edwards said this is the first Award of Merit he has handed out.

At Monday’s city council meeting, Mayor Tommy Thompson called Preston a “true citizen.”