The day the Paramount died
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 15, 2008 1:56 PM
The phone rings.
Peggy Wingate opens her eyes and looks at the clock.
It is 4 in the morning.
Something must be wrong.
She picks up the phone.
It is Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders and his wife.
They have bad news.
Different bells were sounding hours earlier.
Goldsboro Fire Capt. Bernard Patterson was among the crew at the department's Station Four.
"I remember the dispatcher saying, 'working structure fire.' Then he said something about a police officer being down there and saying, 'Yeah. It's a working fire.'"
But Mrs. Wingate would tell you it was more than just a fire.
"(Sheriff Winders and his wife) were at the site the moment they were talking to me," she said. "They were saying, 'The Paramount is in flames.'"
It was likely shortly after midnight when a fire broke out inside Goldsboro's historic theater.
Patterson said by the time call came in, flames had already reached the roof of the two-story building.
"We came down Bunche Drive, and we got to the corner of Bunche and John Street, and you could look right and see it. It was burning pretty good. I told my guys, 'Take your air packs off because you're not going to need them. You're not going in.'"
At the time, Mrs. Wingate had no idea that the venue for her upcoming ballet was a total loss.
She hadn't even been awakened yet.
Al King had.
Shortly after the fire alarm sounded, the mayor, like Mrs. Wingate, was awakened by an early-morning phone call.
It was Fire Chief Bobby Greenfield.
"He told me that the Paramount was burning, so, of course, I went right down," King said. "Standing there and watching it, it was just a feeling of helplessness. You know me, I always think, 'I can fix it. I can do something to help.' All I could do was watch."
Meanwhile, more than 100 firefighters were still trying to contain the blaze.
Fire Capt. Gilbert Hare was among them.
"The only thing on my mind is that we've got to stop this thing before it burns the rest of downtown. That was our main goal," he said. "We were wondering if the whole block was going to go."
Despite the "best efforts" of fire crews on the scene, the Paramount was slowly fading away.
And as it sat burning for hours on end, word spread.
Hundreds of Wayne residents woke up to news of the fire.
King and the city's fire crew remained on Center Street.
"We're seeing the sun come up, and we're still fighting fire," Hare said.
"It must have burned until at least 8 or 9 (a.m.)"
It was about that time that a crowd began forming, King said.
He had watched people stop and stare for hours now, but something new was taking form.
"People were just really hurting," he said. "I remember they were sharing experiences about the first time they came to the theater. And me, I just felt sick."
Mrs. Wingate remembers.
She and her grandson, Thomas, were there.
"It was about 9 o'clock and people were beginning to arrive," she said.
"Of course, there were a lot of tears shed."
Three years later, just talking about Feb. 19, 2005, brings tears to Mrs. Wingate's eyes.
She chokes up when she talks about the charred façade the fire left in its wake.
"It was very, very difficult to go down and see it," she said. "It was just amazing to have to stand there and watch it. I remember all the workers trying their best to contain it, but, certainly, we all knew it was gone."
And although crowds will gather, again, along Center Street this weekend -- this time to celebrate the grand opening of a reconstructed Paramount, one Mrs. Wingate says will "still have its grandeur about it" -- she admits the images of the death of the original will never fade from her mind.
"There was this smoke, this muggy haze in the air. It was just everywhere," she said. "And I could see the flames. I could see the flames in the sky."
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